Turning Coal to Diamond: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Arthurdale Subsistence Housing Project


  • Renée Trepagnier Tulane University


In 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt (ER), the First Lady of the United States, initiated a subsistence housing project, Arthurdale, funded by the federal government to help a poor coal mining town in West Virginia rise above poverty. ER spotlighted subsistence housing as a promising venture for poor American workers to develop economic stability and community unification. She encountered harsh pushback from the federal government, the American public, and private industries. Deemed communistic and excessively expensive, Arthrudale pushed the boundaries of federal government involvement in community organization. Bureaucratic and financial issues impacted the community’s employment rates, income, and community cooperation. ER persisted, perhaps too blindly, until the federal government declared the project a failure and pulled out to avoid further financial loses. ER’s involvement in Arthurdale’s administration and bureaucracy radically shifted the role of the First Lady, a position with no named responsibilities or regulations. Before ER, First Ladies never exercised authority in federally regulated projects and rarely publicly presented their opinions. Did ER’s involvement in Arthurdale hinder or promote the project’s success? Should a First Lady involve herself in federal policy? If so, how much authority should she possess?


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