It's that time of year again! Every summer interns from around the country join us in our work on the TR Digital Library. We often ask them to share their experiences in the blog. Through Catherine Kerner's work this summer, she is filled with tremendous respect and admiration for America's 26th President.
This summer, along with my fellow interns, I had the opportunity to catalog correspondence from Theodore Roosevelt in the early weeks of his presidency. Amongst the many thank-you notes sent to well-wishing friends and colleagues, appointments to military and civil service positions, and numerous requests for meetings, I was lucky enough to read letters which gave me an insight into Roosevelt’s personality: determined, humorous, loyal, and family-oriented.
Occasionally, there were views or policies which raised my 21st Century eyebrows, but the letter which stayed with me long after I first read it; the letter which I mention to anyone who asks about my work this summer, is one that fills me with tremendous respect and admiration for America’s 26th President.
This particular letter concerns Roosevelt’s famous White House dinner with prominent African American, Booker T. Washington which occurred on October 16, 1901. Though Washington was well-respected by many politicians, industry leaders, and philanthropists, his invitation to dine with the Roosevelt family provoked much controversy. Disparaging articles and cartoons appeared in the southern press, with The Memphis Scimitar calling it “the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States.”
The President received many gestures of support from friends and colleagues, and in a letter to Lucius Nathan Littauer, Roosevelt articulated his sadness that such hostile feeling existed in the country.
"As to the Booker T. Washington incident, I had no thought whatever of anything save having a chance of showing some little respect to a man whom I cordially esteem as a good citizen and a good American. The outburst of feeling in the South about it is to me literally inexplicable. It does not anger me. As far as I am personally concerned I regard their attacks with the most contemptuous indifference, but I am very melancholy that such feeling should exist in such bitter aggravated form in any part of our country.”
“There are certain points where I would not swerve from my views if the entire people was a unit against me, and this is one of them. I would not lose my self-respect by fearing to have a man like Booker T. Washington to dinner if it cost me every political friend I have got."
Roosevelt did not intend to make a political or social statement with his invitation, merely to extend an invitation to dinner as he did with so many other respected advisors and acquaintances. I was especially buoyed by the final defiant paragraph, and the imagery it evoked; certainly befitting of a man who remains enduringly respected and relevant.
However, despite Roosevelt’s resolute convictions and his history of entertaining African Americans while Governor of New York, Booker T. Washington did not return for dinner during his presidency. The ‘scandal’ had legs and remained a topic of discussion and debate for many years. It was a long time before the next African-American dinner guest at the White House but, as we approach the final months of Barack Obama’s presidency, it seems an opportune time to look back at this event and Roosevelt’s endeavor to “show some little respect… to a good citizen and a good American.”