Booker T. Washington

Up From History, Part 4

02.04.13 11:37 AM ET

Booker T. Washington was the first black man to dine in the White House. As Norrell tells it, the invitation from President Theodore Roosevelt was an impulsive one, and one that Roosevelt soon regretted.

The dinner invitation originated in the complex internal politics of the national Republican party after the assassination of President McKinley. Roosevelt had been given the vice presidency in order to remove him from New York, where he was annoying local party leaders. Now "that madman" had inherited the top job, and regular Republicans immediately began to scheme to remove him from the ballot in 1904. Roosevelt's best hope to defeat them was to build himself a political following in the Republican parties of the South: precisely because those parties were so weak, they could be most influenced by presidential patronage. The South's few white Republicans were beholden to Roosevelt's enemy, Mark Hanna. Roosevelt relied on Booker T. Washington to recruit a machine of his own - including anti-Populist Democrats who held paternalistic rather than white-nationalist attitudes toward Southern blacks.

Booker T. Washington made two trips to the capital in the fall of 1901 to meet with the president. In advance of the second meeting, he received the invitation to dine.

Norrell quotes TR's later rueful reflection. The president had talked so much to Booker Washington that "it seemed to me that it was natural to ask him to dinner to talk over this work, and the very fact that I felt a moment's qualm on inviting him because of his color made me ashamed of myself and made me hasten to send him the invitation." It did not occur to him that the invitation would have any political "bearing one way or the other, either on my own future or on anything else."

Booker T. Washington was far more open-eyed about the invitation and its consequences:

He had a day to think about it and count the costs. He decided that it represented "recognition of the race and no matter what the personal condemnations it brought upon my shoulders I had no right to refuse or even hesitate."

(Norrell, p. 243.)

When the story broke, the reaction was savage.

"The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that n***r," [South Carolina's U.S. Senator] Ben Tillman announced, "will necessitate our killing a thousand n***rs in the South before they will learn their place again." James K. Vardaman [soon to be elected governor of Mississippi and then Mississipp's U.S. senator] proclaimed that Roosevelt had insulted every white man in America. "President Roosevelt takes this n***r bastard into his home, introduces him to his family, and entertains him on terms of absolute social equality." Rebecca Felton [a popular Georgia journalist] said that although Washington was reputed to be a level-headed Negro, at the White House he had thrown off the mask and revealed himself as a "disintegrator and disorganizer of both races." … The Nashville American said that despite Booker's respectability, "A leak in a dam is dangerous to the dam's safety," and giving Washington such privileges would cause other blacks to demand the same privileges. "Miscegenation would follow and a mongrel race would be the result." Governor Oates [governor of Alabama and a friend and quiet ally of Washington's] reiterated the point: "No respectable white man in Alabama of any political party would ask him to dinner nor go to dinner with him.

(Norrell, pp. 246-247)

The Atlanta Constitution later editorialized that no political event had so moved the white South in twenty years.

After securing his re-election in 1904, Roosevelt would edge away from Washington, hoping to gain white Southern support for a possible try at a third term in 1908. In his annual message to Congress in 1906, Roosevelt suggested that lynching - although criminal - could also be seen as an understandable reaction to black criminality and urged better black cooperation with local law enforcement as the best safeguard against lynching. Yet Booker T. Washington and Roosevelt remained allies. Roosevelt continued to rely on Washington for appointments advice; Washington's access to the president secured his position both as the nation's pre-eminent black leader and as a man who - true to his own philosophy of life - could offer southern white leaders "something they wanted."

The succession to the presidency of William Howard Taft weakened Booker Washington's position. Taft reverted to the old McKinley-Hanna reliance on the South's few white Republicans rather than its now almost completely disenfranchised blacks. Then Woodrow Wilson's election in 1912 seemed to mark the final end of all political hopes for black Americans. A man of the South had won the presidency for the first time since the Civil War. Democrats gained ascendancy in Congress as well. Blacks were systematically purged from all but the lowliest jobs in government. Southern-style segregation was imposed on the city of Washington D.C. for the next half century.

At this same time, northern whites and blacks launched the NAACP as a self-conscious rival to Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee operation.

As a final blow, Washington himself was caught in a scandal for the one and only time in his career. On March 19, 1911, Washington paid a call on an apartment building on West 63d Street. He got into an altercation that ended with a white man savagely beating him. As the police investigated the attack, Washington's explanation of his visit progressively disintegrated. Many became convinced that he was at the apartment house to see a woman, although this was never proved or even substantiated.

Washington was married three times. His first two wives were genuine intellectual companions, who both died young. He seems to have been much less close to his third wife. In public, Washington upheld a strict sexual creed. He had dismissed from Tuskegee a professor suspected of sexual involvement with women students. Now he was stained with a question about his own to-date unblemished personal conduct. The scandal accelerated his physical decline and speeded his way to his tragically premature death in 1915.

Read Part 5 Here