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

The Presidential Dinner That Scandalized America

Dariusz Stusowski - July 12, 2017

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, 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 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 racists 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?

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