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Ellen A. Wilson

In an extremely rare letter, the First Lady thanks a performer

for her recitation at the White House

Ellen Louise Axson Wilson, 1860–1914.  First Lady of the United States, 1913–1914.  Extremely rare Manuscript Letter Signed, Ellen A. Wilson, two pages, small octavo, with integral leaf attached, on stationery of The White House, May 29, 1913.

This is only the third White House letter of President Woodrow Wilsonʼs first wife that we have found.  Two others have appeared on the autograph market, but to our knowledge this letter has never been offered on the market before.  Mrs. Wilson died of Brightʼs disease just two days over 17 months after she became First Lady.  Her autograph material is rare enough overall, but because of the short time that she lived in the White House, anything that she signed as First Lady is extremely rare. 

This letter relates to the visit of members of the Goucher College freshman class to the White House on May 19, 1913.  The college was founded in 1885 by the Methodist Episcopal Church.  The May 29 issue of The Christian Advocate—coincidentally published the day that Mrs. Wilson wrote this letter—reported on the visit:

Goucher College looks forward with joyous spirit to the twenty-second commencement. . . . The calendar marks the busy days for the final academic and social events.  Members of the class of 1916 were the guests of Mrs. Wilson and Mrs. Jessie Wilson at the White House May 19 and were entertained by several readings in dialect by Miss Louise A. Williams.  Tea was served in the state dining room and the young ladies returned to Baltimore late in the evening.

In this letter, Mrs. Wilson thanks Williams for her performance.  In this letter marked “Personal,” she writes, in full:  “My dear Miss Williams,  /  I want to thank you for the pleasure which your recitations gave us.  We enjoyed hearing the old fashioned Negro dialect, and you portrayed their humor and pathos so truly.  /  Wishing you all success in your work and with renewed thanks, believe me,  /  Sincerely yours . . ."

Williams, of Atlanta, Georgia, was a popular performer of the day.  In 1915, the Highland Democrat carried a story about her upcoming performance of “An Evening in Dixie,” a mixture of "plantation stories and songs,” and noted that she had “given her entertainment at such places as the White House, West Point, the Waldorf-Astoria and Sherryʼs."

The racial overtones of Mrs. Wilsonʼs letter today were not odious in 1913, and indeed Mrs. Wilson herself sought to improve the lives of the African-American population in Washington, D.C.  Although she grew up in in the South, the descendant of slave owners, she worked to persuade Congress to pass legislation to remedy problems in the capitalʼs largely African-American slums, which she visited and brought to congressional attention.  Her death was the impetus for passage of a remedial bill.

Goucher College, which today is a coed liberal arts institution, was at the time a womenʼs college.  Founded in 1885 by the Methodist Episcopal Church as the Womenʼs College of Baltimore City, it was renamed Goucher College in 1910 in honor of one of its founding members, Methodist minister John Franklin Goucher.

In History Comes to Life, Kenneth Rendell notes that Mrs. Wilson's autograph material is very rare.  In The First Ladies of the United States:  An Historical Look at Each and Their Autograph Materials 1789-1989, Walter Ostromecki, Jr., counted only five of her autograph pieces that had been sold in a 20-year period.  We have found ten sold at auction since 1991.  As noted above, however, this is only the third White House letter that we see has been on the autograph market.

This letter is on silver-ink engraved White House stationery.  It has parallel horizontal folds midway down that affect eight words of the text but do not touch Mrs. Wilsonʼs signature.  There are a couple of small stains, the larger of which penetrates both the front and integral leaves but barely touches only one word of text, and there are staple holes near the vertical integral leaf fold.  Overall the letter is in fine condition.




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