VSU Graduate's Thesis Archived in White House Office of the Curator

July 15, 2012

VSU Graduate's Thesis Archived in White House Office of the Curator

VALDOSTA -- For years, Kathryn Beasley has been captivated by stories of first ladies from America’s past and present. When considering a first lady to highlight in her thesis, the recent graduate decided to bring one she considers an unsung hero -- first lady Ellen Axson Wilson -- to the forefront.

A copy of Beasley’s completed work, "’I Think We Have An Angel in the White House’: First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson and Her Social Activism Concerning the Washington, D.C. Slums, 1913-1914,” now sits among thousands of records about the nation’s rich history after recently being filed in the White House Office of the Curator.

“I feel very honored and humbled to have my work filed in the Office of the Curator,” said Beasley. “I actually gathered much of the information for my research from White House public records. The curatorial assistant, Monica McKiernan, was very helpful in this process and ultimately requested a copy of my completed thesis for the White House files.”

Beasley’s thesis offers an in-depth look at the social activism of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson.

“When people think of Woodrow Wilson, they usually think about his second wife, Edith Wilson, because the president was only in office for a year when Ellen Wilson died,” said Beasley. “However, I felt it was important to focus on Ellen Wilson because she was the first president’s wife to get publicly involved and bring attention to an important social issue.”

During her time in the White House, Ellen Wilson joined the National Civic Federation, through which she started an initiative to improve living conditions in the slums of Washington, D.C. As part of her social reform effort, she would take members of Congress on tours of the district so they could see conditions firsthand. Her activism resulted in the passing of the Alley Dwelling Act of 1914, which eliminated blighted areas and established better housing plans for impoverished citizens.

“Initial plans for Ellen Wilson Memorial Homes were made following her death in 1914,” Beasley said. “However, the public housing facilities, Ellen Wilson Dwellings, were not built until the 1930s. Around the 1980s, the facilities were torn down after becoming infested with crime. The Townhomes on Capitol Hill were built in their place.”

Beasley added that a street -- Ellen Wilson Place -- was named in Wilson’s honor. The street still retains her name.

A Georgia native, the first lady was born in Savannah and raised in Rome, where she is also buried.

“Ellen Wilson was a very modest first lady whose impact was remarkable,” said Beasley. “It has been said that first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who is known as the epitome of socially active first ladies, viewed Ellen Wilson as a mentor.”

“I feel that a first lady can choose to have a profound impact in any effort she chooses to bring attention to,” Beasley said. “We have seen this with Eleanor Roosevelt and her involvement in civil rights, Betty Ford’s work to raise awareness of addiction, Barbara Bush and Laura Bush and their push for education and literacy and Michelle Obama’s initiative to address childhood obesity. It is important to highlight Ellen Wilson’s contributions because they serve as a starting point in our history.”

Beasley expressed appreciation for the support of her thesis adviser, Dr. Catherine Oglesby, professor of history, as well as the members her graduate committee, Dr. Dixie Haggard, assistant professor of history; Dr. Paul Riggs, history department head; and Dr. Ginger Macheski, professor of sociology.

“The entire history department has allowed me to have an outstanding experience as an undergraduate and graduate student at VSU,” she added.

A Tifton native, Beasley received her Bachelor of Arts in History from VSU in 2010. She graduated with her Master of Arts in History in May. She recently accepted a position as a part-time instructor in the history department. Her ultimate goal is to earn her Ph.D in history and become a professor. She also expressed an interest in expanding her research on America’s first ladies.