Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

In The Firebrand and the First Lady, scholar Patricia Bell-Scott illuminates the unlikely friendship between two historic American women. Radical civil and women’s rights activist Pauli Murray and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt corresponded for years and swayed one another’s social justice aims and strategies. Their views never converged, but Bell-Scott makes a compelling case that they grew with and toward each other.

“I started out being interested primarily in doing a biography, but then the friendship just drew me in,” Bell-Scott says of her decadeslong quest to capture the relationship and its impact—both on the women and the country.

Murray saw Roosevelt for the first time in 1934 at Camp Tera, a government-sponsored facility for unemployed women. Murray was an indigent resident, and Roosevelt was the camp’s visionary, visiting to confer with residents and ensure the camp was adequately staffed, equipped, and integrated. Twenty-four-years old, malnourished, and suffering from respiratory problems, Murray was exactly the kind of young woman Roosevelt meant the New Deal camp to serve.

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