I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
America in 1901 was a segregated society―by law. A black man could not offer to shake the hand of a white man because such a gesture carried the implication of equality. So, when Theodore Roosevelt invited a black man to dine with him shock and awe broke out across the land.
Segregated White House
African-Americans built the White House. Of course, they didn’t have any choice in the matter because they were slaves. They quarried the rough stone and were involved in every aspect of the building’s construction. But, once complete, they were not permitted to enter the presidential home except through the servant’s entrance.
There were a few exceptions to this practice. Newspaper editor and abolitionist Frederick Douglass met with President Abraham Lincoln in the White House on three occasions. However, the third visit was indicative of attitudes. Following Lincoln’s second inauguration, Douglass was stopped at the door to the White House by a couple of police officers who intended to walk him off the property. Lincoln heard about this and Douglass was admitted immediately.
In 1878, Lucy Hayes, wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes, invited the soprano Marie Selika Williams to sing at the White House. She was the first African-American performer to be so honoured.
Invitation to White House Dinner
According to Carolyn Bruehl (Prezi) in the early 1900s “Blacks and whites were not supposed to eat together. If they did eat together, whites were to be served first, and some sort of partition was to be placed between them.”
So, it was in this climate that President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dine with him and his family in the White House in October 1901.
Deborah Davis is author of the 2013 book Guest of Honor that describes the dinner and events surrounding it.
In an interview with National Public Radio, Ms. Davis said “Theodore Roosevelt was known for being a very, very impulsive man … He had an appointment with Booker T. Washington. At the last minute, he thought, ‘Let’s make it dinner.’ ” She says Roosevelt had second thoughts, knowing that dining with a black man implied equality. Ashamed of his hesitation, he immediately sent the invitation.
Booker T. Washington faced a similar dilemma. He was only too well aware of the controversy that might follow and the impact it might have on all African-Americans.
Reaction to Dinner
Booker T. Washington was right to be apprehensive. There were howls of outrage that a black man would presume to dine with a white family; and, not just any family, but the First Family.
The reaction was strongest where you’d expect it to be, in the South.
Senator James K. Vardaman, Democrat of Mississippi was beside himself with indignation: The White House was “… so saturated with the odor of n***er that the rats had taken refuge in the stable.”
The Memphis Commercial Appeal declared that “President Roosevelt has committed a blunder that is worse than a crime, and no atonement or future act of his can remove the self-imprinted stigma.”
I shall allow no man to belittle my soul
by making me hate him.”
Booker T. Washington
The Memphis Scimitar opined that the interracial dinner was “the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States.”
Booker T. Washington later tried to be deferential and placate the angry southerners. In his 1911 book, My Larger Education, he wrote “In the South it is not the custom for coloured and white people to be entertained at the same hotel; it is not the custom for black and white children to attend the same school. In most parts of the North a different custom prevails … Thus, in dining with President Roosevelt, there was no disposition on my part―and I am sure there was no disposition on Mr. Roosevelt’s part―to attack any custom of the South.”
White House Spin Cycle
Then, as now, when the president steps in a cow pat the handlers rush to change the narrative.
The first turn of the spin cycle was that the ladies of the White House had not been present. Then, there was the fiction that it had been lunch and a tray had been ordered to the Oval Office during the meeting.
In the 1930s, a journalist interviewing Mrs. Roosevelt asked “Was it lunch or dinner?” Deborah Davis says the former First Lady “… checked her calendar, and she said it was most definitely dinner.”
But, those who wanted to believe their president saw black people as equals would not let go of the story. Roosevelt and Washington were vilified for months, years, and even decades for breaking the racial taboo.
You can’t hold a man down
without staying down with him.”
Booker T. Washington
N***ers in the White House
An anonymous writer from Missouri churned out a piece of doggerel to condemn the dinner in verse. The poem appeared in newspapers across the country from 1901 to 1903. It’s theme was that African-Americans had no business being in the White House. The epithet N-word is repeated 24 times.
Republican Senator Hiram Bingham of Connecticut described the poem as “… indecent, obscene …”
In the last three verses, the author offers some thoughts:
I see a way to settle it
Just as clear as water,
Let Mr. Booker Washington
Marry Teddy’s daughter.
Or, if this does not overflow
Teddy’s cup of joy,
Then let Miss Dinah Washington
Marry Teddy’s boy.
But everything is settled,
Roosevelt is dead;
N***ers in the White House
Cut off Teddy’s head.
The vitriolic poem slumbered in obscurity until June 1929 when it was resurrected. Lou Hoover, wife of President Herbert Hoover, invited African-American Jessie De Priest to tea at the White House. She was the wife Congressman Oscar De Priest.
Once again, southern politicians and newspapers reacted angrily. Senator Coleman Blease of South Carolina put the offensive verses into a Senate resolution that requested “… the Chief Executive to respect the White House.”
The poem was read on the floor of the Senate, but more moderate minds prevailed and it was removed from the Congressional Record and the resolution, which was voted down.
- Following the dinner with Booker T. Washington no other African-American was invited to dine at the White House for almost 30 years.
- Omarosa Manigault Newman resigned her position on the White House staff in December 2017 prompting, The Washington Post to comment “President Trump doesn’t have any black senior advisers at the White House.”
- Scott Joplin composed an opera, A Guest of Honor, around Booker T. Washington’s dinner at the White House. While touring the show in 1903 someone stole the box office receipts one night and Joplin was unable to pay his bills. Creditors seized Joplin’s belongings including the score for the opera, which disappeared never to be seen again.
- “Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Shocking’ Dinner With Washington.” National Public Radio, May 14, 2012.
- “The White House Was, in Fact, Built by Slaves.” Danny Lewis, Smithsonian, June 26, 2016.
- “African-Americans in the White House.” Documenting the American South, undated.
- “Segregation in the Early 1900s.” Caroline Bruehl, Prezi, April 30, 2014.
- N***ers in the White House.” The Theodore Roosevelt Center, undated.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor