Elizabeth “Lizzie” McDuffie (1881-1966)

Elizabeth McDuffie was Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s cook, maid, and nursemaid from 1933 to 1945. She also campaigned and gave speeches in support of President Roosevelt’s re-elections, helped him write some of his own speeches, acted as an intermediary between the Roosevelts and the African American community, and “helped form a workers’ union for government employees” [1].

Lizzie McDuffie was born Elizabeth Hall in Covington, Georgia, September 13, 1881, to the sharecroppers Mr. and Mrs. William Alfred Hall. She was raised and educated in Atlanta, attending public grade schools and Morris Brown College, plus private tutoring in English and public speaking. In 1912, she married Irvin McDuffie, who would end up working as FDR’s personal valet for many years [2].

Even with her education, McDuffie found her job opportunities very limited and she worked as a maid in Atlanta for the wealthy Inman family for several decades. In December 1932, after Roosevelt’s election, it was announced that Lizzie would be coming to Washington, D.C. to join her husband in employment at the White House [3].

McDuffie quickly developed a close friendship with FDR and told him “that she intended to act as his ‘SASOCPA,’ or ‘Self-Appointed-Secretary-On-Colored-People’s-Affairs’” [4]. By 1936, she was enthusiastically campaigning for the president’s re-election, speaking to large African American audiences in cities like St. Louis, Chicago, and Gary, Indiana [5]. During one of those speeches, McDuffie stated: “God emancipated our souls and Lincoln emancipated our bodies, but Franklin D. Roosevelt emancipated the civic side of the Negro. He said to me, ‘For years your people have been hewers of wood and drawers of water, but now they are going to get those rights which are theirs’” [6]. McDuffie also promoted FDR by reporting on New Deal statistics and highlighting how beneficial the Works Progress Administration and National Youth Administration were to the Black community [7].

Among McDuffie’s many talents were theater and acting. In 1936, she auditioned for the role of “Mammy” for the movie Gone With the Wind. Her try for stardom was widely reported, but the part was eventually given to Hattie McDaniel, who won an academy award for her portrayal of Mammy. In recent years, the role and the movie have come under critical scrutiny for racial stereotyping and promoting the idea of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy [8].

McDuffie was one of those present when FDR died in Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945. On the train taking the president’s body back to Washington, she reflected on her life’s journey: “I lay in my berth with the curtains pulled back from the window and watched the lights and shadows of the passing countryside. In the midnight quiet, I looked out at the sharecroppers’ cabins nested like old grey hens in the cotton fields. It was in a cabin like that I had been born” [9].

McDuffie’s husband Irvin died the following year and her life afterward is not well documented.

What is clear is that her love for the Roosevelts endured. In a 1964 interview she said FDR “was a grand wonderful man” [10] and during a 1966 visit from Franklin Roosevelt, Jr.—widely publicized in the newspapers and accompanied by a touching photograph—a frail and emotional Lizzie grasped his hand and said, “Oh, darling boy” [11]. Elizabeth McDuffie died seven months later, November 27, 1966 [12]. She rests at the South View Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia [13].

SOURCES

(1) “Swan House,” Atlanta History Center (accessed February 19, 2021). Also see, “The Working White House: Elizabeth McDuffie,” The White House Historical Association (accessed February 20, 2021), and “F.D.R.’s Maid Recalls: Offspring Lively Brood,” Associated Press, in The Daily Review (Morgan City, Louisiana), June 24, 1964, p. 6. (2) “White House Maid Enjoys Working For Roosevelts,” The Pittsburgh Courier, March 14, 1936. (3) See, “FDR’s Deft Civil Rights Advocate, Elizabeth McDuffie,” Scenic Hudson (accessed February 20, 2021); and “Atlanta Negro To Serve as Valet For New President at White House,” The Atlanta Constitution, December 28, 1932, p. 7. (4) See previous note, Scenic Hudson. (5) “White House Valet’s Wife On Stump at Negro Rally,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 17, 1936, p. 3. (6) “Life as Lived in White House Told By Insider,” The St. Louis Star-Times, October 17, 1936, p. 3. (7) Ibid. (8) See, e.g., “Mrs. Roosevelt’s Maid Visits Here, But White House Talk Is Taboo,” The Atlanta Constitution, July 30, 1937, p. 9; and “Gone With the Wind and the damaging effect of Hollywood racism,” The Guardian, June 13, 2020. (9) Jill Watts, The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt, New York: Grove Press, 2020, p. 422. (10) See note 1, The Daily Review. (11) “FDR, Jr., Greets Old Friend In a Sentimental Journey,” Associated Press, in Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, New York), April 12, 1966, p. 26. (12) “Lizzie McDuffie, FDR Family Nurse, Dies,” Associated Press, in The Daily Tribune (Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin), November 29, 1966, p. 7. (13) “McDuffie,” The Atlanta Constitution, November 29, 1966, p. 24. Note: McDuffie’s gravestone (accessed February 20, 2021) is inscribed with the birth year 1876; however, in McDuffie’s later years she had trouble remembering her age. Various sources point to 1881 being her actual birth year.

New Deal Maps

Check out our latest map and guide to the work of the New Deal in Washington, D.C. It includes 500 New Deal sites in the District alone, highlighting 34 notable sites, and includes an inset map of the area around the National Mall which can be used for self-guided walking tours.

Take a look at our previous guides, equally comprehensive, covering key New Deal sites in San Francisco and New York City.