Theodore Roosevelt made a calculated gesture this week in 1901 that challenged the nation’s racial sensitivity. The president invited a well-known African American scholar, friend and advisor, Booker T. Washington, for dinner at the White House. When Washington, who was the founder of the Tuskegee Institute, shared repast with the Roosevelt family, it sent the Southern press and others into apoplectic furor.
It was the first time an African American had ever been a White House dinner guest. The outcry in legally segregated America swept the nation punctuated by vile insults and headlines hurled at both Roosevelt and Washington.
In the aftermath, Washington wrote to TR and penned (in part) “I know that you are of such a nature that having once decided what is right, nothing will turn you aside from pursuing that course.”
The two remained friends, but Washington never joined the president for dinner again.
“The Booker T. Washington incident was to me so much a matter of course that I regarded its sole importance as continued existence of that combination of bourbon intellect and intolerant truculence of spirit, through much of the south, which brought on the Civil War.
When I asked Washington to dinner, I did not devote very much thought to the matter one way or the other. I respect him greatly and believe in the work he has done. I have consulted so much with him that that it seemed natural to ask him for dinner to talk about the work, and the very fact that I felt a moment’s qualm on inviting him because of his color made me ashamed of myself and made me hasten to send the invitation.
As things have turned out, I am very glad that I asked him, the clamor aroused by the act makes me feel as if the act was necessary.”
Dakota Datebook: Remembering Theodore Roosevelt is written and performed by Steve Stark. Funding provided by the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation.