The Presidential Dinner That Scandalized America
The Presidential Dinner That Scandalized America

The Presidential Dinner That Scandalized America

Dariusz Stusowski - July 12, 2017

Teddy Roosevelt was not known for being demure. Nor was he known for small thinking or insignificant actions. He was a man who fearlessly charged San Juan Hill. He was a man who often disappeared alone into the vast American wilderness in order to fortify his spirit. He was a man who was shot in the chest and refused to go to the hospital, instead insisting on completing a scheduled speech.

What bold action was it then, which prompted a Tennessee newspaper to proclaim that Roosevelt committed “the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States”? It was a simple dinner invitation – a public invitation to formally dine with Booker T. Washington, in the White House.

It can be written with certainty that in 1901, when the invitation was offered, Booker T. Washington was one of the most respected African Americans in the United States. He was appreciated by many Southern traditionalists and a favorite of Northern progressives alike. He was a self-made man, born a slave but with an unappeasable hunger for education and boundless work ethic, became a social healer and black icon to many during the turn of the 20th Century. So why did a simple dinner invitation given to an honorable and popular man like Washington cause such a scandal?

While a modern reader can appreciate how prejudiced feelings may be awoken by those in support of racial segregation, the depth of the passions this event evoked can be hard to appreciate today. Many were outraged, not just because the President of the United States invited a black man to dinner, but that it was publicly acknowledged, held at the White House, and Roosevelt’s family were present. All of these elements were deeply symbolic. Today, dining is usually a very casual event, but during the turn of the 20th Century, inviting a man to your dinner table was an action heavily filled with social significance.

The Presidential Dinner That Scandalized America
An illustration from “Puck Magazine” favorably depicting the relationship between Booker T. Washington and Teddy Roosevelt.

In the early 1900s people still tended to dine only with those they considered equals, or at least with those considered to be colleagues in some meaningful way. A dinner invitation could even be considered an invitation to sexual access. In some parts of the country, a single man invited to sit with the head of a family for dinner could be seen as an invitation to court his unmarried daughters. Though Booker T. Washington was a married man, such cultural knowledge made many feel a deep sense of unease.

Allowing Washington to formally sit at a table with his wife and children was an outrageous act to many. The Richmond Times could not be clearer when it described what the consequences of this seemingly harmless dinner really signified. “It means that the president is willing that negroes shall mingle freely with whites in the social circle – that white women may receive attentions from negro men; it means that there is no racial reason in his opinion why whites and blacks may not marry and intermarry, why the Anglo-Saxon may not mix negro blood with his blood.”

A newspaper out of Missouri published a poem with an explicitly racist title suggesting that members of the Roosevelt and Washington family should intermarry, now that such a dinner took place. An excerpt from the poem concludes:

“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.”

The Presidential Dinner That Scandalized America
A cartoon from the Atlanta Constitution pejoratively depicting a diminutive Washington being heartily embraced by a paternalistic Roosevelt.

The Presidential Dinner That Scandalized America
Theodore Roosevelt gives a speech with Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute on June 24, 1896. Harvard Gazette

In short order, Washington, a man whom even many segregationists saw as a relatively positive force in African American society, became a societal menace. Political illustrations of the time depicted both Roosevelt and Washington in a variety of ways. Roosevelt was depicted as pandering to black voters while Washington was depicted as a threat to the social order or even as sub-human.

However, there was plenty of support for the dinner as well. Other images from the time depict the two men and their meeting as a positive and historic event, filled with promise and hope for improvement. So inspired was Scott Joplin, a famous American composer who popularized the “ragtime” genre, that he wrote an opera, now-lost to history.

The country was clearly split, some seeing the dinner as productive while others were deeply angered. So why did Roosevelt so enthusiastically invite Washington to dinner in the White House, so soon after being inaugurated? After all, Roosevelt was President for only about a month, having ascended to the Presidency after William McKinley died from an assassin’s bullet. Surely, Roosevelt must have known just how much of a political storm his request would cause. Why start a presidency with such a controversy?

Washington and Roosevelt already had a long working relationship with each other. Roosevelt considered him a trusted advisor and a liaison to the African American community. He was impressed with Washington’s life story, a good example of the type of “rugged individualism” Roosevelt admired. Impressed by Washington’s accomplishments, the most famous and successful of which was the foundation and management of the Tuskegee Institute.

The Tuskegee Institute was one of the first institutions of adult learning for African Americans in the South. The institute focused on practical education, usually associated with agricultural sciences and industrial trades as well as some social and academic emphases. The goal of the institution was not so much to create tradesmen, but to create teachers of tradesmen. Booker T. Washington fundamentally believed that the best way to create a better life in America for blacks depended not on overt political agitation, but on social and economic self-sufficiency.

Concluding that economic progress was more possible than social equality, Washington’s view split the African American community. Many saw this way of thinking as too great an accommodation. W.E.B. Dubois, perhaps Washington’s most vocal critic, believed that Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission”. But Washington knew how deep the bonds of culture and history were, especially in the Deep South. Unlike Dubois, he was born in the South, as a slave, with little access to even the most basic forms of education or social mobility.

The Presidential Dinner That Scandalized America
Image contained in the first edition of Thomas Dixon’s “The Clansman”. Dixon was particularly hostile to Booker T. Washington’s emphasis on practical education for African Americans. Wikipedia

While Washington’s critics were numerous, perhaps the people who hated him most also understood with the greatest clarity, the fearful power of Washington’s work. Thomas Dixon, whose novel “The Clansman” was adapted into one of the most notoriously racist films in American history, “The Birth of a Nation“, perfectly understood Washington’s goal.

Dixon knew these methods would teach African Americans “to be masters of men, to be independent, to own and operate their own industries,” concluding that blacks would “in every shape and form destroy the last vestige of dependence on the white man for anything.”

Others such as Paul Barringer, an opponent of black educational efforts, also feared Washington’s mission, concluding that “any education will be used by the negro politically, for politics, once successful, is now an instinctive form of warfare.”

Washington’s work, though not radical enough for some, struck fear into the hearts of those who understood his philosophy’s true power. Critics strongly objected to what they saw as Washington’s abandonment of political rights for economic accommodation. But his understanding of the realities of Southern life for people of African descent was deeper than most others’ – there were no political rights left to abandon.

The South, after the collapse of the Reconstruction Era, was hardening once more. Jim Crow was emerging as the harsh reality of the land. His gospel of work, self-sufficiency and peaceful co-existence was needed now. Political equality would come once this work was on its way. Washington knew this instinctively and his dinner with Roosevelt proved him to be right. If a simple dinner between a black man and the President could spark panic, what terrible ills would political agitation unleash upon those most vulnerable?