October 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 7
On October 16, Booker T. Washington, the nation’s foremost black leader, dined at the White House with President Theodore Roosevelt and his family. When word of the meal got out, Southern whites reacted with fury. The Memphis Scimitar called Roosevelt’s act “the most damnable outrage ever committed by any citizen of the United States.” Sen. “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman of South Carolina said, “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again.” The Macon Telegraph invoked a familiar specter: “A dinner given by one man to another in the home and privacy of his family means that the guest or his son may woo and win the host’s daughter.” Both Roosevelt and Washington received death threats.
The purpose of the dinner had been to discuss federal appointments in the South. That section was overwhelmingly dominated by white Democrats, but Roosevelt, a Republican, hoped to create a faction that would work with him. To this end, he had decided to dole out some patronage jobs to deserving Democrats and give the rest to Republicans, black or white, who were loyal to him and not to party bosses. Roosevelt had solicited Washington’s advice on choosing candidates to satisfy these requirements.
Although the President was shaken by the white Southern reaction, the dinner did not cost him greatly in the long term. His evenhanded appointment policy and his personal popularity won him approval, or at least grudging acceptance, across the region. And among blacks, the dinner made Roosevelt a hero. The ragtime composer Scott Joplin went so far as to write an opera (now lost) about it called A Guest of Honor . Even after the Brownsville incident of 1906, in which Roosevelt let three entire companies of black soldiers be dishonorably discharged after a shooting, most blacks stayed loyal. For generations, Theodore Roosevelt would rival Washington and Lincoln as a popular name for African-American children.
Still, Roosevelt never again dined with an African-American at the White House. Not until 192.9, when the wife of a black congressman attended a reception for congressional wives, did another African-American attend a White House social function.