In November 2021, Ford Roosevelt was casually reading through the USS Potomac Association’s newsletter when something caught his eye. The organization was looking for a new executive director, and the job listing called for someone with experience leading nonprofits.
Roosevelt, who was living in Los Angeles at the time, had been doing just that for Project GRAD LA, a nonprofit that helped students in under-resourced communities complete their high school education and go to college. In 2020, during the height of the pandemic, the nonprofit closed due to dwindling resources.
During his two decades running the nonprofit, Roosevelt estimates that over 60,000 students from the San Fernando Valley benefited from its services. Its shuttering almost forced him into early retirement—until he read the job listing in the newsletter.
As one of the grandsons of former President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt, he had more than a passing interest in the USS Potomac Association. The nonprofit is tasked with preserving the USS Potomac—a 165-foot vessel that served as FDR’s presidential yacht until his death in 1945. The boat is currently docked in the harbor at Jack London Square. The USS Potomac was designated an Oakland Landmark on April 23, 1985, and is also on the National Register of Historic Places.
Without hesitation, Roosevelt applied. He took over as executive director remotely in March 2022, before moving to the Bay Area and June.
During its tenure as the presidential yacht, the USS Potomac served a dual purpose for President Roosevelt, who used it for pleasure cruises and as a deception tactic: It allowed him to attend clandestine meetings with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill under the guise of spending time enjoying a fishing exhibition. One of these secret meetings led to the creation of the Atlantic Charter.
“I like to think of the story of the ship operating at a time when the government really did work for the citizens of the country,” Roosevelt said. “I think that if this [ship] played a role in that, keeping him relaxed and calm in very trying times, it’s great.”
After President Roosevelt’s death, the USS Potomac had a number of different owners, including Elvis Presley, who bought the ship in 1964 at an auction for $55,000. Elvis later donated it to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The hospital eventually sold it also, and it continued to change hands until it was seized in 1980 in San Francisco by U.S. Customs agents after it was discovered that the ship had been used as a front for drug smugglers. It was then towed to Treasure Island, where someone pierced its hull, causing it to sink. Two weeks later, the vessel was pulled from underwater and sold to the Port of Oakland for $15,000.
One of President Roosevelt’s children, James Roosevelt, advocated for restoring the USS Potomac and pleaded his case with then-President Ronald Reagan.
“My uncle Jimmy flew to Washington to meet with President Reagan,” Roosevelt recalled. “And Ronald Reagan, when he was a young boy, voted for FDR four times. He was an FDR Democrat, and he voted for him. So FDR was important to him. He saw the link to history to get the ship floating. Reagan got that.”
Everything in the ship that once belonged to President Roosevelt had rusted from it being almost completely underwater—the only things above water were the smokestacks and the pilot house. Everything else had to be recreated.
The restoration of the USS Potomac took 12 years with the help of organized labor, maritime corporations, and dedicated volunteers, and cost $5 million.
Roosevelt never got to meet his famous grandfather. Still, he has fond memories of Eleanor Roosevelt as his grandmother and a champion of equal rights. As the chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, she played a key role in forming the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
One thing that Roosevelt wishes he’d done more frequently is ask his father questions about the family and talk about the impact that his grandparents had on the country.
“When I was doing the work for the students in LA, that was article 26 of the declaration, the right to free and equal education,” he said. “This ship represents education. It represents a time in the history of this country that needs to be reflected on and remembered because it’s a time when freedoms and individual rights were squashed by the war and the depression.”
While President Roosevelt has a complicated legacy and faced criticism over his administration’s policies during World War II, he is widely revered for implementing the “New Deal,” a series of government programs and laws in the 1930s designed to help people overcome the effects of the Great Depression and restore prosperity throughout the country. It included the passage of banking reform laws, emergency and work relief programs, and agricultural programs. Later, a second wave included union protection programs, the Social Security Act, and programs to aid tenant farmers and migrant workers.
“When you hear people today calling to cut Social Security and so on, they don’t get it,” Roosevelt said. “They’re in for a quick win or a headline. These people that want to dismantle the New Deal programs, you can’t because they’re everywhere.”
For Roosevelt, leading the effort to preserve the vessel as a historical artifact and educational tool is a personal mission.
“This ship, to me, is the epitome of a floating, rocking, testament of his vision. Every time I’ve come on, I remember my grandmother. Even though she wasn’t on a lot, I think of her. I think of him. I think of my dad because he was on it quite a bit,” he said. “It’s an interesting experience.”
After being closed to visitors for most of the pandemic, the USS Potomac is now open for guided tours. Those who go can see where President Roosevelt met with cabinet members and the small room where he sometimes hosted his fireside chats addressing the nation in radio broadcasts during World War II.
When visiting the USS Potomac, you might also come across volunteers who dedicate their free time to help with the upkeep of the vessel, many of whom are veterans who once voted for President Roosevelt.
“People get hooked onto the ship, and they come back. I’m going, ‘What is going on?’ But then you see why,” he said. “The Potomac is unique. There’s nothing like it.”
Besides the docent tours, the USS Potomac offers narrated cruises every year between April and November. One of Roosevelt’s first projects as executive director was unveiling a new website that makes it easier for people to learn not only the history of the ship but how to book cruises online.
He plans to partner with other organizations to make the ship available as an educational tool for more people in Oakland and beyond.
“There are historical artifacts that are real and important to people, this being one of them,” he said. “It’s important to keep it working, keep it afloat, and keep it available to people.”