Dinner at the White House
In the year 1901, the turn of the century, one of the most scandalous events to ever top newspaper headlines exploded out of the White House; Southern congressmen were up in arms, and the political backlash that could’ve smashed through brick. After all, President Theodore Roosevelt had just had a meeting over dinner with Booker T. Washington; an African American. Because at the turn of the century, when segregation was law, the only place where men could dine with each other was at the table called equality; equality between blacks and whites and every other race (Teddy).
This dinner is depicted in a lithograph that is credited to David J. Frent and the David J. & Janice L. Frent Collection. I could find very little on Frent; in fact, I am not even sure if he is the original creator of the lithograph, nor when the lithograph was created, but upon looking further into his collection he was clearly interested in the development of the civil rights movement and activism during the 20th century. His lithograph contains a picture of Roosevelt and Washington sitting at a small dining table, with the word “EQUALITY” bolded across the table cloth, as to spell out the obvious situation that they are dining as equals (“Dinner”). In the background there is an American flag and a picture of Abraham Lincoln, as direct references to American patriotism and the Emancipation of the slaves; further reinforcing the idea of equal standing as Americans, regardless of race.
The unfortunate reality was that in 1901, the idea of equal standing was just that; an idea. Racism had existed ever since the development of slavery; whites had sought to portray African Americans as a “lesser” and “uncultured” race to justify using forced labor to turn a tidy profit (Pittman, 2015). Whites could claim that blacks did not treasure family ties to split apart families and that their resistance to their enslavement justified further abuse. It was often illegal to teach enslaved blacks to read and write, and then they were looked down upon as being stupid. Generations upon generations of enslavement had ingrained ideas of white supremacy into the minds of many Americans.
Following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the ensuing defeat of the Confederation, there was a period of time in which it seemed as if steps were being taken to address this racism. The North seemed driven to put the subjugated South in its rightful place; passing the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendment within a decade to end slavery, and guarantee citizenship and voting rights to African Americans. Freed slaves were given 40 acres and a mule to help them work their way into society (Pittman, 2015). For a period of time, a disproportionately small 16 African Americans would even represent their people in Congress and 600 would serve in state legislatures (History). But the efforts of the North amounted to little; and they seemed to give up just as quickly. While slavery could be outlawed, the years spent cultivating racism were impossible to undo on such short notice. The South just as quickly began passing black codes and Jim Crow laws to restrict the freedoms of the newly freed blacks; all public facilities were to be segregated, and blacks were at risk of being attacked by the rising Ku Klux Klan or being arrested on misdemeanors or false charges (Pittman, 2015). In order to preserve their labor supply, sanctioned systems of debt peonage and convict leasing were used to trap blacks in either an endless cycle of unpayable debt or in the police system run by profiteering whites (Pollard, 2012). And even in the North, where de jure discrimination—legally sanctioned discrimination—didn’t exist, there was the social equivalent of de facto discrimination that subjected blacks to similar treatment (Pollard).
It is during the peak of this racism, the year 1901, that Theodore Roosevelt sits down at this dinner with Booker T. Washington. It would come to be what he considered one of his biggest mistakes in his presidential career. While there was some support for his action from certain parts of the North, his simple dinner with an African American elicited vehement criticism (Teddy). At the first inkling of a hint that America could potentially advance its civil rights, one Senator was quoted saying that “the action of President Roosevelt… will necessitate killing a thousand… in the South before they learn their place,” while even some African-American papers began to express fear that there would be “hell to pay” from the anger Roosevelt had stirred up (Teddy). I was shocked when I read about the kinds of consequences of his dinner; lynching rates in the South rose, there were crude comics of his wife, and even an assassin was hired to go after Booker T. Washington (Teddy). But the key takeaway from the backlash is the sheer, overwhelming power of the racism in the America; that people are in fact, so offended by the thought of their president entertaining someone they consider a lesser being, that they actually go out and actively hunt down and kill African Americans to send a message saying “don’t get cocky”.
In his second presidential inaugural speech in 1905, Theodore Roosevelt takes the most politically moderate stances that he possibly can on race issues. Roosevelt essentially claims that whites, as a forward and advantaged race, must take upon themselves the responsibility of raising blacks to a status of freedom and equality (Theodore). You can almost hear how careful Roosevelt is in wording this statement; it is most clearly catered to the white population, showering them with complements and respect, and places as little blame as possible on them for the current status of the African Americans. Despite the fact quietly acknowledging that something needs to be done concerning civil rights, Roosevelt offers no real plans to deal with racism nor shows a strong desire to force a stance on it; and I am almost certain it is because he does not want to make the same mistake that he did four years ago, in dining with an African American. Nor would any other President want to make the same “mistake” of taking a stance suggesting a similar idea. Following his dinner with Washington, another African American would not be invited to dine in the White House for another 30 years (Teddy).
I had initially thought that this could’ve been a step for the federal government to take in the direction of civil rights; the first step since the North had given up on its Reconstruction policies. However, the severity of the immediate political and social backlash made me realize how deeply rooted racism was at this period of time; my initial readings on this topic turned from mild intrigue to fascination at how impossible progressing civil rights during this period seemed. And while I was disappointed that Roosevelt took as low key of a stance as possible on the issue of race, I also can understand his desire to avoid confrontation with the race issue; the implication of equality not only threatened his political career and drew fire to his family, but it also placed many blacks into the crosshairs of whites who were very angry at the idea.
But it is not to say that Roosevelt’s dinner drew nothing but bad. To many African Americans, Washington’s dinner with the Preside was something for them to aspire towards; and it is said that in the following decades, African Americans began to hang pictures of Booker T. Washington, pictures just like the lithograph, on their walls (Teddy).
Brunner, B. African-American History Timeline. Retrieved November 20, 2015, from http://www.infoplease.com/spot/bhmtimeline.html
Dinner Given at the White House by President Roosevelt to Booker T. Washington. (1901). [Lithograph]. David J. & Janice L. Frent Collection/Corbis.
Pittman, L. (2015). African Americans & Reconstruction Era [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from https://canvas.uw.edu.
Pittman, L. (2015). Emancipation & Reconstruction [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from https://canvas.uw.edu.
Pittman, L. (2015). The Great Migration [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from https://canvas.uw.edu.
Pollard, S. (Director). (2012). Slavery by another name [Motion picture]. PBS Distribution.
Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Shocking’ Dinner With Washington. Retrieved November 20, 2015, from http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=152684575
Theodore Roosevelt: Lincoln and the Race Problem. Retrieved November 20, 2015, from http://www.sojust.net/speeches/theodore_roosevelt_lincoln.html#sthash.xV7Fd72h.dpuf