Harry Lembeck discusses one of the most controversial events of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency in his new book Taking on Theodore Roosevelt: How One Senator Defied the President on Brownsville and Shook American Politics. In an interview with the Theodore Roosevelt Center, Lembeck discusses the Civil Rights Movement, Granville Fortescue, and the nobility of Joseph Foraker.
Q: At what point in the writing process did you make the decision to start with the end, Foraker being honored by the DC African American community? How did that choice shape your construction of the story?
A: It was always surprising to me that however few people knew anything about Brownsville, even fewer had ever heard of Joseph Foraker. I knew all along that he, not Roosevelt, would turn into the narrative’s protagonist, so early on I had to introduce him and Brownsville to the reader and generate an interest in both so the reader would keep turning the pages. I hope the gratitude shown Foraker at the loving cup presentation at the AME Church for what he did in Brownsville and the mini-biography of him in chapter one accomplish that. By dividing that chapter into two parts, I gave the reader “before and after” views of Foraker. In chapter one the reader asks, just who is this man and what did he do to deserve this honor? By the end, the reader not only knows, he judges Foraker not only by what he did but also by what kind of a man he was. Foraker stands shoulder to shoulder with the soldiers in the Brownsville pantheon, and I think the story deserves to be told through him. Also, by putting him and the loving cup at the beginning of the book, I could tell the story in a flashback way. History is not linear and neither is the Brownsville Incident. I could present the story in an adjusted chronology that I hope told the story better.
Q: One of the goals of your book is to resurrect Joseph Foraker as an important historical figure. What specific details would you like readers to remember about him?
A: Decency. Nobility. The way that Foraker presented his argument for the black soldiers: respectfully and calmly but with the passion it merited. Current American politics are polarized. I think they were always polarized. But the difference was that politicians and commentators in the past didn’t take their differences home at night. Not today, when it seems they live their differences twenty-four hours a day. Joseph Foraker’s arguments were based on an interpretation of the Constitution that he saw as crucial then and people see as crucial now.
I also think readers should remember that Brownsville was part of the Civil Rights movement that began before the Civil War. If it were not for Brownsville, the rivalry between W.E.B. Du Bois, with his confrontational view of how to proceed, and Booker T. Washington, with his accommodation ideas, may not have been settled when it was. Brownsville helped settle it, as the book points out, and thereby helped change the direction of the Civil Rights movement.
Q: How did your perception of Booker T. Washington evolve during the course of writing the book?
A: Full circle. Before I wrote the book I thought of him as a noble leader of the Civil Rights movement. Then I started reading about him and the Atlanta Compromise and why he formulated his approach to the problem, and I saw him as a man who was very perceptive and realistic about the times in which he lived. He and what were then called Negroes had to accommodate themselves to get through them. Washington changed from that to a man who came to see his own importance and his own influence as something greater than the movement that he led. Then, just before he died, he sought reconciliation between himself and Du Bois. He did this knowing that it would be the end of his policy of accommodation. He knew that Du Bois was going to win that argument. By giving in and accepting the inevitability of Du Bois’s approach for the good of the race, he became again the noble leader.
Q: How did seeing Brownsville influence the story you wanted to tell?
A: I wasn’t able to go to Brownsville in person. I had two or three trips planned and something always came up. I did get there in a way, as I made friends with people in Brownsville who were so helpful to me, strangers really. They knew about the Brownsville incident of course and they would in a sense walk the streets with me. We became close friends on the phone. I said, “Well, I’m coming to Brownsville and we’re all going to walk these streets together.” I still plan to go there.
Q: While researching in archives were there any specific items that you uncovered that especially surprised you?
A: The letters between Joseph Foraker and the newspaperman John Callan O’Laughlin, when Foraker almost begged for his help with Roosevelt for the upcoming Ohio senatorial election. I had never heard of this incident, so clear in portraying Foraker’s agony. Foraker swallowed his pride and self respect, and you can see how painful this was for him. Then there were the letters between him and his niece about his brother dying of cancer. I didn’t know any of that, and it shows Foraker’s commitment to the soldiers and their cause. He wouldn’t go up the road – what, 90 miles from Washington to Philadelphia? – to see his dying brother, because it would mean time taken away from the fight for the soldiers.
Then there is Granville Fortescue, Roosevelt’s cousin. I thought it was unbelievably reckless of Roosevelt to have the relationship he evidently had with such an unsavory man. I wish I could have had the space to go into just how many difficulties Fortescue faced that he brought on himself and how Roosevelt rescued him. The army didn’t want to promote him; Roosevelt wanted to know why. Roosevelt knew why: because Fortescue was a bad soldier and a bad man. We know that Roosevelt entrusted Fortescue with finding out about the Russo-Japanese War, because he sent him over there to be the military observer. So it is not so unbelievable he would trust him with the Brownsville mission, as his valet James Amos wrote.
Q: Did you visit Harvard as part of your research?
A: I went to Harvard maybe six or seven times, each time for a week or ten days. In the Acknowledgments, I thank Wallace Dailey who was the curator of the Theodore Roosevelt Collection at Harvard. If you pick up any book about Roosevelt from the past twenty or thirty years, you will see well-deserved praise for the help Mr. Dailey gave that author. And he helped me very much. I also spent a lot of time at the Library of Congress. I really researched all over the country, from Bowdoin College in Maine to the University of Wyoming for the Frances Warren Papers. I went often to Cincinnati for the Foraker papers, and to six or eight other libraries from Ticonderoga, New York, to UCLA in California.
Q: In the epilogue of the book you cite David Fromkin’s discussion of TR’s idea of good and evil in a lawless society. You suggest that this idea may have been “deeply etched into him by his ranching days in Dakota” (386). What are some of the ways that Roosevelt’s experiences in Dakota Territory may have impacted how he viewed the Brownsville events?
A: Because he had been a rancher in Dakota he understood ranchers. He may have done in Dakota some of the things that Francis Warren did in Wyoming that got Warren in trouble with the Interior Department. Roosevelt knew and understood and empathized with Warren, because he had been a rancher himself. I think that’s why Roosevelt could justify to himself the horse trading that went on between him and Warren, so that Warren, the Chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee investigating Brownsville, would ensure for Roosevelt a favorable hearing. If he had not had this empathy for Warren, I don’t know that he would have let a man who did what Warren did stay out of jail. But he did, and it helped him in Brownsville.
You read some of the books about Theodore Roosevelt’s time in Dakota as a rancher, or even before that, when he first went there, and it was really a new world for him. He was a dude from New York City. The guides he hired to show him around thought they would take this tenderfoot out and expose him to a little hardship and he’d run right back to the hotel. But he could outride them and he tolerated the rain and the weather and hardships better than they could. I think his time in Dakota was the formative event in his adult life before Cuba. I think that’s what made him the great man that he was.
Brownsville was a great mistake, but Roosevelt still remains a great man. He still belongs on Mount Rushmore.
Q: The epilogue ends on such a positive note and then events are questioned in the afterword. What sense did you want to leave readers with?
A: I’m not sure that what James Amos said is reliable. But it might be, and either way, it’s something that I’m surprised has not been included in any comprehensive study of Brownsville. I would like readers to be reminded that history still does not know for sure what happened, and a new explanation, even if unlikely to hold up, deserves to be known.
And I suppose I want the reader to understand that Joseph Foraker may be the hero of Brownsville, but Theodore Roosevelt is still the man of history and, aside from Brownsville, deserves to be. His first mistake was that he never should have gotten involved. He should have let the army handle it. That was what he first was going to do. Right after the shooting, Roosevelt’s secretary William Loeb sent telegrams to two Texas senators and the people of Brownsville saying Roosevelt wasn’t getting involved. Let’s see what the Army investigations turn up. Then Roosevelt changed his mind and got involved, and from then on he owned Brownsville, and he was horribly wrong in how he dealt with it. His second mistake, which flowed from the first one, was throwing these men out of the army. There’s really no forgiveness in there for Theodore Roosevelt.
Q: What are your next projects?
A: I’m fascinated by Theodore Roosevelt. He’s still my hero. And I’m fascinated by the era he so influenced, especially the immigrant experience of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I’m thinking about doing something on the immigrant experience – but not how immigrants changed themselves and America. I know in my family’s case, they came here from Europe and never looked back. They became Americans, pure and simple. I think Theodore Roosevelt and how he saw America and represented America was a big reason why.