In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt invited African-American educator Booker T. Washington, who had become close to the president, to dine with his family at the White House. Several other presidents had invited African-Americans to meetings at the White House, but never to a meal. And in 1901, segregation was law.
News of the dinner between a former slave and the president of the United States became a national sensation. The subject of inflammatory articles and cartoons, it shifted the national conversation around race at the time.
NPR's Neal Conan talks with Deborah Davis, author of Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation about the dinner that she believes changed history.
On why inviting a black man to dinner crossed a social boundary
"African-Americans were invited to meet in offices. They built the White House. They worked for the various presidents. But they were never, ever invited to sit down at the president's table. And when that happened, the outrage was just unbelievable. ...
" 'Dining,' and I put it in quotation marks, was really a code word for social equality. And the feeling was, certainly in the South, that if you invited a man to sit at your table, you were actually inviting him to woo your daughter. He should feel perfectly comfortable asking your daughter to marry him. And so that's really the primary reason why people were so offended. It just shouldn't happen in 1901 that a black man would be able to ... have that entree into your family."
On why Roosevelt extended the invitation, and Washington accepted
"Theodore Roosevelt was known for being a very, very impulsive man. But this was a good impulse. He had an appointment with Booker T. Washington. At the last minute, he thought, 'Let's make it dinner.' He started to send out the invitation, and he hesitated for a second, thinking, 'Is this a bad idea because of this man's color?' And he was so ashamed that he hesitated, that he hastened to send the invitation out before he could change his mind.
"Now, Booker T. Washington faced the same thing when he had to decide whether or not to accept the invitation. He thought, 'This is going to be a real problem for me, but I have no right to refuse. It's a landmark moment, and I have to accept this on behalf of my whole race.' ...
"[But] he understood what the aftermath would be and the backlash."
On the furor following the dinner
"There was hell to pay, first weeks, then months, then years, then decades. This story did not go away. And, you know, an assassin was hired to go to Tuskegee to kill Booker T. Washington. He was pursued wherever he went. Theodore Roosevelt was criticized in ways that presidents were not criticized. There were vulgar cartoons of Mrs. Roosevelt that had never been done before. This was all new territory.
"There were some interesting spinning sessions that went on among Republicans. One was to turn the dinner into lunch, because it seems that lunch would be a less objectionable meal, and so the story went that, no, you know, Booker T. Washington didn't go to the dining room at the White House. He was sitting in the office, and they got hungry and they ordered a tray. And by the time they were finished, there was barely a sandwich on it. And that seemed to make the meal a little more palatable in the South. ...
"And this persisted for decades, actually, until finally in the '30s, a journalist asked Mrs. Roosevelt, was it lunch or was it dinner? And she checked her calendar, and she said it was most definitely dinner."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
In 1901, segregation was law. And while blacks and whites might do business or work at the same company, their social lives orbited separate planets, certainly in the South and in most places in the North as well. But at the dawn of this new century, a new president crossed the line. Theodore Roosevelt invited black educator and speaker Booker T. Washington to dine with him and his family at the White House. The meal between the former slave and the president of the United States sent shockwaves through the nation.
In her new book "Guest of Honor," socials historian Deborah Davis explains how that dinner became central to the integration debate. The author joins us now from our bureau in New York. Deborah Davis' latest book is "Guest of Honor." Nice to have you with us today.
DEBORAH DAVIS: Oh, lovely to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And everybody knows Frederick Douglass met with Abraham Lincoln at the White House, what, 35, 40 years earlier. What's the big deal about Booker T. Washington coming to dinner?
DAVIS: Well, what happened was African-Americans were invited to meet in offices. They built the White House. They worked for the various presidents. But they were never ever invited to sit down at the president's table. And when that happened, the outrage was just unbelievable.
CONAN: And you write that the outrage was not - it was about crossing that social line. Yes, you can talk to African-Americans, you can have relations with them, business dealings, all kinds of relationships but not sit down at dinner, not have a social relationship.
DAVIS: Well, dining, and I put it in quotation marks, was really a code word for social equality. And the feeling was, certainly in the South, that if you invited a man to sit at your table, you were actually inviting him to woo your daughter. He should feel perfectly comfortable asking your daughter to marry him. And so that's, you know, really the primary reason why people were so offended. It just shouldn't happen in 1901 that a black man would be able to, you know, have that entree into your family.
CONAN: A week afterwards, the president was with Booker T. Washington. They both attended the same event. It was at Yale University, Washington in the audience, Roosevelt on the stage, they are - the president introduced by Supreme Court Justice David Brewer, who surprised the crowd, you write, by tackling the dinner head on. Looking in T.R.'s direction, he said, I'm glad there is one man in the United States who knows a true Washington, whether he is a George or a Booker.
DAVIS: Yes. And the crowd went crazy. Honestly, Yale was completely unprepared to have paparazzi and, you know, journalists hounding Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington while they were there, just wanting some comment about this dinner. And in a very funny way, Booker T. Washington's eating habits became an obsessive topic in the country. Everybody wanted to know who he was eating with, where he was eating. The poor man was probably tempted to start fasting.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: And it's interesting, you talk about the criticism in the South, and obviously, there was some support in the North, but African-American newspapers in the South were critical of Booker T. Washington.
Well, they were afraid, and they had every right to be afraid. A U.S. senator, Ben Tillman from South Carolina, actually made this statement: The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that - I can't say the word...
DAVIS: ...will necessitate killing a thousand blank in the South before they will learn their place. This was a very, very real problem. Lynchings were up. There were people who were opposed to this dinner, who were perfectly happy to take out their feelings on the first available African-American. And lives were in jeopardy.
CONAN: In the South, the Charleston Messenger was critical of Booker T. Washington, and that's an African-American newspaper. The editor claimed there will be hell to pay.
DAVIS: And there was hell to pay. And there was hell to pay, first weeks, then months, then years, then decades. This story did not go away. And, you know, an assassin was hired to go to Tuskegee to kill Booker T. Washington. He was pursued wherever he went. Theodore Roosevelt was criticized in ways that presidents were not criticized. There were vulgar cartoons of Mrs. Roosevelt that had never been done before. This was all new territory.
CONAN: Obviously, the president was criticized but it did not prevent his re-election a couple of years later.
DAVIS: No, it didn't. But there were some interesting spinning sessions that went on among Republicans. One, was to turn the dinner into lunch because it seems that lunch would be a less objectionable meal, and...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVIS: ...so the story went that, no, you know, Booker T. Washington didn't go to the dining room at the White House. He was sitting in the office, and they got hungry and they ordered a tray. And by the time they were finished, there was barely a sandwich on it. And that seemed to make the meal a little more palatable in the South. But - and this persisted for decades actually until finally in the '30s, a journalist asked Mrs. Roosevelt, was it lunch or was it dinner? And she checked her calendar and she said, it was most definitely dinner.
CONAN: And you would think that an event that would have such implications would've been carefully thought through and, you know, considered days, weeks, months in advance. In fact, it seems impromptu.
DAVIS: It was completely impulsive, and let's face it, you know, Theodore Roosevelt was known for being a very, very impulsive man. But this was a good impulse. He had an appointment with Booker T. Washington. At the last minute, he thought, let's make it dinner. He started to send out the invitation, and he hesitated for a second, thinking, is this a bad idea because of this man's color? And he was so ashamed that he hesitated, that he hastened to send the invitation out before he could change his mind.
Now, Booker T. Washington faced the same thing when he had to decide whether or not to accept the invitation. He thought, this is going to be a real problem for me, but I have no right to refuse. It's a landmark moment, and I have to accept this on behalf of my whole race.
CONAN: Because it was such an honor and such a landmark; he understood the social implications.
DAVIS: Oh, completely. And he understood what the aftermath would be and the backlash.
CONAN: It's interesting, one of the characters who comes into your story is Samuel Clemens - Mark Twain - who was asked by President Roosevelt if he'd made a mistake.
DAVIS: And his answer was so interesting because, you know, Mark Twain, actually objected to the White House dinner, and he was not alone. In the nature of objection, he said that the president had no right to express his personal feelings about race while in the White House, that the White House belonged to everybody and that a president should not speak personally about civil rights.
CONAN: He also had a low opinion of the president. The storm that burst on us must have enthused the circus soul of the little imitation cowboy.
DAVIS: Yes, he thought that President Roosevelt was just trying to make a big political noise.
CONAN: It is interesting. These are two people who could not have come from more different backgrounds: the aristocratic son of New York, Theodore Roosevelt, who, well, was a rancher, he lost a lot of money ranching, but nevertheless, a Rough Rider who'd been governor of the state of New York and, of course, a police commissioner before that; and the son of a slave, Booker T. Washington, who brought himself, literally, up from slavery, educated himself and worked his way through school and made Tuskegee from nothing into a major institution.
DAVIS: The parallels between the two men were extraordinary, and, of course, I didn't know that when I started researching the story. But every step of the way, there was something else that was a mirror image. They both pursued lofty goals in childhood. They both suffered love and loss as young men. They both lost their wives and were left with infant daughters at very young ages. They both embraced public service, and they both emerged as leaders. And the thing is that in another more enlightened time, they could've held the other's job.
CONAN: It is also interesting. We mentioned Frederick Douglass, obviously the first generation of African-American leaders in this country. He met with President Lincoln, was - discussed the race issue several times during the Civil War with him, and it is Booker T. Washington who sort of picks up the mantle, along with W. E. B. Du Bois.
DAVIS: They did. But it was interesting to me that Booker T. Washington and Du Bois came from completely different positions. Slavery was not a concept to Booker T. Washington. He lived it. Whereas Du Bois grew up in Massachusetts and had a - was born free and had a completely different experience. It was really Booker T. Washington's mission to lead his people out of slavery. He was actually called the Negro Moses, and it was Du Bois' mission to lead them into the 20th century. If they had been able to work together in concert, I think that what they would've achieved would've been remarkable.
CONAN: Yet they had tensions, well, I think, that continue to this day.
DAVIS: Yes, and it's unfortunate because they were really on the same page. You know, they had the same goals in mind. But there was also, you know, a bit of competition, and I think that Du Bois would've been very happy had he been the first African-American to have been invited to dine at the White House.
CONAN: We're talking with Deborah Davis, social historian and author. Her latest book, "Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.
And as this parallel biography continues until their final meeting, it is Roosevelt - he gets into trouble for writing a book about his days as a Rough Rider where he was critical of colored troops - as they were known in those days - their behavior in the Spanish-American War. He was actually factually incorrect in - about what they did, but was also criticized; came under a great deal of criticism for his depiction of them as less than electrified to go to the front.
DAVIS: He made a big mistake, and he knew that he made a big mistake. He - the black soldiers who fought in the Spanish-American War were very heroic. And, in fact, Roosevelt had said this to Booker T. Washington in a private meeting. So inexplicable why he said that, but he often made, you know, errors like that. And he did retract that one. He was not as apologetic later on during the Brownfield incident, and he never retracted that. But I think that we have to look at the whole life, and it was very kind of moving to me that at the end of his life, Roosevelt's one desire was to lead a troop of African-Americans in World War I. And that was denied him. He considered too old, but that was his ambition.
CONAN: And as you moved through history, it is Roosevelt who has redefined social norms at the White House in this year of 1901, the first year of the new century, this energetic president - I misspoke earlier and talked about his re-election. He was only elected, of course. He succeeded to the presidency after the assassination of William McKinley.
DAVIS: He did and that was - he didn't like that. You know, he was somebody who like to win, and inheriting the presidency seemed just, you know, not his - the proper way to obtain it. So he was really focusing on the 1904 election. And when he moved into the White House with his family, it was a whole new world. Suddenly, America was electrified by the notion of this young president. He was in his early 40s. He had children. He had a wife who was, you know, attractive and healthy. The children rode their bicycles in front of the White House. And all of a sudden, they were America's first family in the true sense of the word.
And it was time to define White House entertaining in a different way. And what began very casually because the White House was in mourning for President McKinley and, in fact, the Roosevelt-Washington dinner took place during that moment when there was no official entertaining. Entertaining at the White House really evolved into something spectacular with the Roosevelt's. They had a really great time. They entertained breakfast, lunch, dinner. They had a coming-out party for Alice. It was a real hub for entertainment.
CONAN: You said earlier that one of the ramifications, the echoes, the repercussions from this dinner was the acceleration in attacks on African-Americans in the South. Lynching, of course, not unknown before this dinner was held. In fact, it was one of the issues on which Booker T. Washington spoke so eloquently.
DAVIS: Yes. And it was shocking that lynching just wouldn't go away. I mean, here was, you know, a new century with, you know, so many signs of progress. But the dinner definitely had a downside in that respect. It also had an upside. African-Americans, for the first time, felt empowered to ask for a place at the table. Civil servants - African-American civil servants had been invited to White House events they knew that they were not really permitted to accept. Those invitations, you know, had to be politely declined, and they declined them.
After Booker T. went to the White House, suddenly, blacks felt if he could do it, I can do it. And there was actually something called Negro aspiration at the time. This was one of the aftereffects of the dinner that outraged the South, that all of a sudden these people were demanding that they get the same treatment, and that may have brought on backlash but it also brought progress.
CONAN: It also was an element of African-American pride. You wrote the Sunday immediately following the dinner, two gaudily dressed Negro women - this is from a newspaper in the South, a white newspaper - entered a church in Louisville, Kentucky, marched to the front and sat themselves down next to a mortified Confederate veteran and his wife. The reporter recounting the horrifying story, their behavior, and said it was thought to be the result of Booker T's dinner at the White House. The incident fanned the flame of Negro aspiration as it had never been fanned before.
DAVIS: Exactly. And, you know, people said things like, you know, Booker T. Washington is fine in his place. Unfortunately, he doesn't know his place, and this was a real issue. But the fact that, suddenly, African-Americans could look up to Booker T. Washington and think, well, he sat at the president's table. It was truly inspiring to them. And for decades, there were pictures of Booker T. Washington in many African-American homes.
CONAN: Deborah Davis, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.
DAVIS: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Deborah Davis joined us from our bureau in New York. Her book is "Guest of Honor." You can read an excerpt at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.