During the early years of World War II, white South Carolinians, like other southerners, passed rumors of “Eleanor Clubs” back and forth. They told each other that African American cooks and laundresses, inspired by the liberal views of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, were organizing quasi-unions to raise their pay or leave domestic employment altogether. Club members, again according to the rumors, vowed to have “a white woman in every kitchen by Christmas.” After that, they would start to press for social equality and finally for the overthrow of white-led government.
By the spring of 1942, the rumors of Eleanor Clubs had become so widespread and alarming that public officials, including Mrs. Roosevelt, called in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to see if they were true. South Carolina officials launched their own inquiry. Governor Richard Jeffries wrote each of the state’s forty-six sheriffs asking them to search for Eleanor Clubs. A Columbia lawman reported that he discovered an “Eleanor Society” in Cheraw, where at one meeting “cooks and nurses” decided that they “would not work for less than $6 per week.” But most people came to the same conclusion as a Dillon police officer, who said that while “there has been talk of the ‘Eleanor Roosevelt Society,’ after investigating, I find all of this to be just false rumors.” The editor of the Carolina Times, an African American newspaper, thought he knew the real source of these misleading and hysterical reports. “The ‘Eleanor Club’ issue,” he stated, “is a . . . dastardly attempt to besmirch the name of the devoted helpmate of our war-burdened president, both of whom are doing all they can to make the Negro feel his responsibility to his country by giving him an opportunity to share in the benefits of democracy and render his best service to the nation in one of its darkest hours.”
By the time of the D-day invasion in June 1944, the Eleanor Club rumors had evaporated. Few whites, it seems, spoke anymore of sinister plots hatched by the first lady. But that did not mean that the racial tensions and misconceptions that had given rise to these unsubstantiated stories were gone in South Carolina. They just took different forms.
Jeffries, Richard. Papers. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia
Odum, Howard. Race and Rumors of Race: The American South in the Early Forties. 1943. Reprint, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Simon, Bryant. “Fearing Eleanor: Racial Anxieties and Wartime Rumors in the American South, 1940–1945.” In Labor in the Modern South, edited by Glenn T. Eskew. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.