In May the University of Georgia Press published A President in Our Midst: Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Georgia by Kaye Lanning Minchew, former executive director of the Troup County Historical Society and Archives. Below acquisitions editor Patrick Allen talks to Kaye about her book and how the presence of FDR in Warm Springs changed the state and the region.
PA: We know that FDR first spent time in Georgia seeking treatment for his polio, but what do you think linked him emotionally to the state and region?
KLM:FDR grew up in an upper-crust family, had a cousin who had been president of the United States, and attended Harvard. Yet he comes to Georgia and becomes friends with the common man—farmers, merchants, and others in rural areas of the state. He was struggling with the effects of polio and identified with Georgians who were fighting tough farming conditions and hard economic times in the 1920s.
PA: FDR was a stranger in a strange land—a northeastern Brahmin in a southern rural community—when he was at Warm Springs. How was he received by locals and fellow treatment seekers?
KLM: At first, FDR was welcomed because he was a celebrity. He was a member of the Roosevelt family and he was the 1920 Democratic candidate for vice-president of the United States. Some of the first people he met at Warm Springs felt the resort could help him, and hoped he would save the rundown resort by attracting new people to the town. Indeed, FDR soon drew the eyes of the world to the area while locals quickly grew to love him as one of their own.
PA: FDR’s time in Georgia was perhaps his first extended experience with African Americans other than in service positions. How did this influence his thinking about race?
KLM: Indeed, FDR met African Americans as he went around Georgia. He still had those who helped him in service positions as cooks and valets, but he also met farmers and people like George Washington Carver. He walked a fine line between trying not to upset southern politicians, who were still mostly segregationists, and trying to satisfy his wife Eleanor, who thought he should do more to help blacks. He worked to make sure that blacks had a good school to attend and that those with polio received treatment though they had to travel to Tuskegee, Alabama. His legacy with African Americans in Georgia
remains mixed at best.
PA: It seems remarkable to us in our digital age that FDR’s paralysis could be kept an open secret. How was this managed in his visits to the state and to Warm Springs?
KLM: This is perhaps the most amazing part of FDR’s career and legacy. People knew he had polio and knew he came to Warm Springs for treatment. There were major fundraisers every winter on his birthday as part of March of Dimes efforts to find a cure for the disease. Nonetheless, the national press and the people of the state respected him and protected his privacy. Few people realized the severity of FDR’s handicap.
PA: How did the idea for the book first come to you? How did your experience as the executive director of the Troup County Historical Society and Archives inform your research and writing of the book?
KLM: At the Troup County Archives, we had twenty or so photos of FDR, including several unpublished ones. As executive director, I met people who remembered the president speaking to their high school class or driving through town. As I investigated further, I realized that the important role of Georgia and her people in Roosevelt’s becoming a national and world leader was not understood and had never been told. As I searched at other archives, I knew that the photos and the words of the people who remembered FDR could tell that story