26 April 2014

Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation

Deborah Davis

Atria Books

No doubt the vast majority of Americans did not realize that October 16 was the one hundred and eleventh anniversary of the day that Booker T. Washington, a former slave, dined at the White House at the invitation of President Theodore Roosevelt. When I relayed this information to my students, they did not get the significance of the invitation or the dinner. After all, I had taught them that black people built the White House, and it is currently occupied by a black family. What was the big deal about a dinner?


I had to remind them–this is why I cannot give a comprehensive final!–that in 1901 America was a bubbling cauldron of racism. The Civil War and Reconstruction were over, and so was the role the federal government had briefly played in ensuring the rights of African Americans. Jim Crow had taken root and separate but unequal was the official law of the land. In 1901 about ninety percent of the African American population still lived in the south where they toiled as sharecroppers on plantations, and one hundred five blacks had been lynched. The Republican party’s push to appeal to more white southerners meant the purging of black voters from the party. So inviting a black man to the White House for dinner was, to quote Vice President Joe Biden, “a big f------ deal.” It also caused both men an enormous amount of trouble and threatened to derail their friendship.


In Guest of Honor, Deborah Davis draws an excellent picture of two men who, although they lived in different worlds, had a great deal in common, including the fact that they were both sometimes bedeviled by very strong-willed daughters. The two men met in August, 1898, in New York. This was after the Spanish American War, so the conversation centered around the
war in general and the bravery of the Buffalo Soldiers in particular. By the end of their talk each man was convinced the other could be part of “a new team of forward-thinking leaders to tackle contemporary racial issues,” and their friendship began. Thereafter their paths crossed on a number of occasions, and as Roosevelt rose in politics, he came to rely on Washington’s advice with regard to all manner of issues related to the black community, especially political patronage. They regularly exchanged letters, and Washington spoke with Roosevelt whenever he was in the capitol. Indeed they had planned to meet on August 30, but the crush of responsibilities both professional and personal led Roosevelt to decide that it would be more advantageous to kill two birds with one stone and invite Washington to dinner.


Both men calculated the cost of the invitation. Roosevelt, somewhat ashamed at his second thoughts and full of his usual bluster, dashed off the invitation quickly before he could change his mind. Washington wondered if this should be one of those invitations to an outing that he often declined to save himself embarrassment. But he convinced himself that the invitation was not only his, but that of the entire black race, and so he went. In the minds of both men, the evening was a smashing success.


A stringer for the Washington Post performed the common practice of checking the President’s schedule and wrote a one line announcement of the dinner. The story was first reported by the Atlanta Constitution, a newspaper well known for its unfair and racist treatment of blacks, and its reporters had a field day. Dining with a black person was just one step from miscegenation. As newspapers across the south picked up the story, the response became more racist and vitriolic. The dinner became the impetus for organized violence and lynchings of blacks for it served to reawaken whites’ fears of Negro success, and a hit man was hired to murder Washington. For the first time, there were critical stories and obscene cartoons about the
First Lady of the United States; she had been at the dinner. For years the story was used in political campaigns to remind white voters of the consequences of black success and racial equality.


Guest of Honor is popular history at its best. While not scholarly, it is well researched and sourced, engagingly written and highly readable. Davis offers a brief biography of both men in alternating chapters and does a fine job of placing the Roosevelt/Washington dinner within the context of the time. The book is a propitiously timed reminder of the complicated relationship African Americans have with the White House and the presidency.


------------------------


Dr. Marilyn K. Howard earned a BA in criminal Justice from Ohio Dominican College; an MA in political science from The Ohio State University (Thesis: The Entrance of Black Voters Into the Mississippi Electorate) and her PhD in American history from The Ohio State University (Dissertation: Black Lynching in the Promised Land: Mob Violence in Ohio 1876 - 1916). She was an associate professor in the Social Sciences department at Columbus State Community College, where she now holds the same position in the Department of Humanities. Dr. Howard has twice received the Distinguished Teaching Award from Columbus State, and was twice recognized as an outstanding staff member by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development. She was also named a top educator by Ohio magazine. Dr. Howard has served as an editor of the Southern Historian, a freelance book critic for the Columbus Dispatch and Ohioana Library. She has published essays in a number of anthologies, including the Encyclopedia of Racial Violence in America and the Encyclopedia of Jim Crow. She continues to conduct research on the lynching of black men by white mobs in Ohio.