Former first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, became an active member of the U.N. following President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in 1945. She served as a U.S. delegate to the organization and was later elected chair of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. In 1956, Roosevelt announced a planned trip to Asheville to speak on the U.S. United Nations Association’s behalf. Her visit to Asheville, however, depended upon the city’s willingness to have an integrated audience.
Fulfilling this requirement in 1956 posed a challenge. Florence Ryan, a suffragist, human rights activist and YWCA volunteer, was involved in the finding a location that met Eleanor Roosevelt’s requirement. Years later, in 1992, Ryan recalled those times while speaking with Dorothy Joynes, creator of the Voices of Asheville Project — a local oral history undertaking that produced nearly 180 recordings with residents from all walks of life. Ryan’s recording, along with the others recorded for the project, can be found at D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections at UNC Asheville.
On June 30, 1992, Ryan states:
“The early days here when they first began trying to make it possible for black and white citizens trying to meet together and at that time, probably the YMCA or the YWCA were about the only places where you could have a meeting. Well, now for instance, I remember when the United Nations Association, Mrs. Roosevelt in the fifties, began holding meetings around North Carolina talking about the United Nations Association, and we had a group of women at the YW, we were a mixed group there on Community Relations, and we decided to invite her. Well, then we had a great problem of where we would have the meeting because we understood that Mrs. Roosevelt would not speak to any group that wasn’t integrated. Well, of course there was the Civic building, but that’s a large building and we knew that there wouldn’t be enough people to begin to fill it up and that would make it look bad. Furthermore, you had to pay something for that. Well, then we thought maybe some of the, we thought about the schools because the Brown rule, you know, on desegregation of ‘54, had just come out, but nothing had been done here in Asheville and the thought was that having a meeting at night, the first of its kind, might make some problems [in 1954 Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional; Asheville, however, would not integrate until 1969]. Well, we thought about the churches. We asked a couple of churches and they didn’t seem at all interested. So finally, we decided we would just have it at the YW in their gymnasium. Well, we had to put seats in, of course, it’s just a level floor, but we put, filled it up with chairs as much as we could and then at the last, on the last day, we got a call from Tryon. There were about fifty high school seniors wanted to come, and we said, ‘Well, we’ll just put them, they can sit on the floor.’ But when we ended that meeting, the fire department said we had just broken all the fire rules and that we simply could never do anything like that again but it was the only way we had a chance then to get, to find a place where people would come to hear Mrs. Roosevelt and we were one of the first places here in the state to form a United Nations Association chapter.”
Roosevelt wrote a national daily column, “My Day,” that appeared in 90 newspapers across the country from 1935 to 1962. On November 28, 1956, the day after her speech in Asheville, she wrote of her experience in the city:
“I was asked if I was open to political questions and said ‘yes.’ But I did not know until I heard the question if I would answer it or not. One of the first was, ‘Would I consider that the Administration had done all that it could to give leadership in the question of desegregation.’
Suddenly I could visualize the headlines which would focus on this much-argued point in the South as against the real reason for our visit. So I promptly announced that I had come here to talk about the United Nations and I thought that my views on the subject of civil rights were well enough known for me not to discuss them on this particular visit. That saved me from any further difficulties on that score.”
Next week, we will look at the 1960s in Asheville and the YWCA’s strides toward its own integration.