05 November 2008

Booker T Washington's White House Dinner

John McCain's Concession Speech

In his warm and honorable concession speech, Presidential candidate John McCain highlighted the historic significance of Barack Obama's victory in the 2008 election. In a nation where many citizens once considered it scandalous for an African American to dine with the President, the President-elect is now an African American.
A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt's invitation of Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage in many quarters. America today is a world away from the cruel bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States.
Senator John McCain, Concession Speech
Booker T. Washington joined President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House for dinner on 16 October 1901. In Theodore Rex (2001), Edmund Morris notes that dinner "proceeded behind closed doors, under the disapproving gaze of a Negro butler" (52). Southern politics was the central topic of conversation.

News of the dinner traveled along the Associated Press wire throughout the night, and the morning newspapers were generally positive. But the next afternoon, the Memphis Scimitar called the event a "damnable outrage," and Morris notes, used a term that "had not been seen in print for years ... [and now] had the force of an obscenity" (55). Morris quotes the Memphis Scimitar at length:
The most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States was committed yesterday by the President, when he invited a nigger to dine with him at the White House. It would not be worth more than a passing notice if Theodore Roosevelt had sat down to dinner in his own home with a Pullman car porter, but Roosevelt the individual and Roosevelt the President are not to be viewed in the same light.
The newspaper went on to criticize Roosevelt's claims that his mother was "a Southern woman," and to assert that Southern women can no longer accept invitations to the White House "with proper self-respect," nor is President Roosevelt welcome in Southern homes.

One week later reports circulated that Washington and Roosevelt were expected to dine together again, this time at Yale University. Security was tightened, the Secret Service did not permit the President to work the crowds (President McKinley had been assassinated the previous month, elevating Vice President Roosevelt to his present office), and Washington was seated far from Roosevelt during the event. There was no mention of dinner.

Booker T. Washington visited Roosevelt's White House again, but only in the morning during regular business hours. Dinner invitations became impossible for both men.

John McCain praised the United States and its people: "We never hide from history. We make history."

Patriots and Peoples

The controversy that erupted in the wake of President Theodore Roosevelt's historic dinner hosting Booker T. Washington occupies the whole of the second chapter in Edmund Morris' Theodore Rex, the sequel to his Pulitzer Prize winning biography The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979). The dinner gets only passing mention by Howard Zinn in A People's History of the United States. In a discussion of post-Civil War racism, Zinn writes:
In this atmosphere it was no wonder that those Negro leaders most accepted in white society, like the educator Booker T. Washington, a one-time White House guest of Theodore Roosevelt, urged Negro political passivity.
This note about the 1901 dinner leads a paragraph that focuses upon Washington's 1895 Atlanta Exposition Address, which was soundly criticized by W.E.B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folks (1903).

Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen offer a full paragraph concerning Washington's dinner and the resulting controversy in A Patriot's History of the United States. They state that "the event showed both how far America had come, and how far it had to go" (483). In the next paragraph, however, they discuss African American soldiers in Brownsville, Texas in 1906 "shooting up the town, killing a civilian, then managing to return to the base unobserved" (483). Roosevelt discharged the soldiers , and they were denied their pensions. Schweikart and Allen note that these soldiers' military honors were restored by Congress in 1972.

The abrupt transition from a dinner regarded as scandalous by some to the narrative concerning African American violence--mistreatment of the soldiers by Brownsville residents is mentioned, but without any detail--hits me with the sort of force effected by the Memphis Scimitar's choice of words. I become immediately suspicious of their intent. This passage is not the only place I have observed an abrupt transition to depredations perpetrated by the victims of racial injustice within the pages of A Patriot's History.


ASuburbanPrincess said...

Thank you. Interesting write up. Appreciate your detailed reference to outside sources as well.

James Stripes said...

Thanks for the comment. The outside references are my stock in trade here. I read, and then write about the texts. Much of my reading is stimulated by arguments with A Patriot's History or A People's History, but not exclusively so.

I'm currently enjoying Rick Perlstein's long meditations on the origins and developments of the culture wars in America in his books, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. Although the titles refer to the late 1950s through the early 1970s, these two books are very much about the recent election, and likely the next as well.

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