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. Aimee Duchsherer connects her work with the documents to larger research interests on African Americans in the early twentieth century.
Prior to working with the Theodore Roosevelt Center, I spent two years exploring how early twentieth-century newspapers discussed interracial relationships and issues. So, naturally, when I stumbled across a 1901 letter referring to President Roosevelt’s highly controversial dinner with Booker T. Washington and the response of the press, I was intrigued. This event—while only a small incident in the vast information included within the Theodore Roosevelt Papers—reveals important ideas concerning the tone of American race relations in the early 1900s.
On October 16, 1901, President Roosevelt invited the African American educator, author, and public figure, Booker T. Washington to dine with him in the White House. Several years later, Roosevelt would explain that he extended the invitation after Washington called on him to discuss other matters. At the time, he thought nothing of such an invitation, writing, “When I was Governor [of New York], I had one colored man take dinner with me in the Executive Mansion. … On any rational theory of public and social life my action was … proper.”
However, not everyone viewed this dinner as “proper.” Some worried that it would upset the balance of race relations throughout the country. The St. Louis Republic wrote, “Southern men here to-night in commenting on the Washington incident declared that the President does not and cannot understand the bad effect his inviting the distinguished colored leader to dinner will have on the attitude of the negroes of the South toward white men, their wives and families” (St. Louis Republic, October 17, 1901).
In further negative response, a poem entitled “Niggers in the White House” surfaced and was published in numerous American newspapers between 1901 and 1903. The racist fourteen stanza poem used the racial slur repeatedly, attempting to create a negative image of African Americans essentially taking over the presidential mansion. Ultimately, the poem summed up one of the main problems Roosevelt’s critics had with the incident: “I see a way to settle it / Just as clear as water, / Let Mr. Booker Washington / Marry Teddy’s daughter.”
Niggers in the White House, 1902. From the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
Throughout the United States at the time, the fear of black men gaining access to white women was common. Historian Gail Bederman wrote, “By the 1890s, most white Americans believed that African American men lusted uncontrollably after white women, and that lynchings occurred when white men were goaded beyond endurance by black men’s savage, unmanly assaults on pure white womanhood” (Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917, pg. 46). Therefore, to his critics, by allowing an African American man to dine with his wife and children, Roosevelt was setting a precedent of overly familiar—and potentially dangerous—racial interactions.
Nevertheless, many individuals commended and supported the president. Lucius N. Littauer of the House of Representatives wrote to Roosevelt, “I know of no single principle that has endeared you more to the people of our country than your oft expressed statement that you esteemed every man according to his accomplishments without consideration of his race, color or religion.” Likewise, George H. Barbour of Detroit wrote, “The newspapers, during the past two or three days, have been full of expressions from southern persons especially, criticizing you severely for having independence enough to do what you thought was right. The general public agrees that you were right. …If a man is a true, loyal upright citizen, color should not debar him from receiving proper recognition.”
The White House attempted to respond to the incident in different ways but, ultimately, after the dinner, another African American did not dine in the White House until 1921—an event that was also met with outrage. Theodore Roosevelt was a product of his time and, in some ways, his stance on race and race relations is not always comfortable to us in the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, Roosevelt’s dinner with Booker T. Washington revealed the president’s attempts toward a more racially harmonious America and the underlying tensions he challenged.
These issues and ideas are things I grapple with daily in my personal research. Racial tensions bubbled up in intriguing ways and the ideas Americans had about African American men shaped definitions of gender and sexuality for decades. As I work through the documents available in the Theodore Roosevelt Papers, I continue to find bits and pieces of these ideas which help me to construct a more complete picture of African American-white relations in the early twentieth century.
Aimee Duchsherer recently graduated with a master’s degree in history from the University of North Dakota. Her research explores the social response to the African American boxer Jack Johnson’s relationships with white women in the early twentieth century. She has presented her work at several conferences including the annual conference of the Western Association of Women Historians. In addition to her internship with the Theodore Roosevelt Center, Duchsherer currently teaches online with Dakota College at Bottineau.