Booker T. Washington & Theodore Roosevelt's Explosive Dinner

When Booker T. Washington crossed the threshold of the White House on October 16, 1901, to have dinner with President Theodore Roosevelt, both men knew this was not just a casual meal. It was an event that launched a hundred headlines—and explosive...
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Gerit Quealy
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When Booker T. Washington crossed the threshold of the White House on October 16, 1901, to have dinner with President Theodore Roosevelt, both men knew this was not just a casual meal. It was an event that launched a hundred headlines—and explosive...
Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt. (Photos: Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Harris & Ewing [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt. (Photos: Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Harris & Ewing [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

When Booker T. Washington crossed the threshold of the White House on October 16, 1901, to have dinner with President Theodore Roosevelt, both men knew this was not just a casual meal. It was an event that launched a hundred headlines—and explosive ones at that. And yet the historic dinner has all but been expunged from the historical record. Why? And how? Author Deborah Davis heard about the dinner by happenstance, at another historical event: Senator John McCain's 2008 concession speech to newly elected President Barack Obama. “A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt's invitation of Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage in many quarters,” said McCain. “America today is a world away from the cruel bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States.” As a cultural historian, it was that first sentence that pricked up Davis' ears. This sounds like a story, she thought, "And [it] just got bigger as I was researching." So big, in fact, that it turned into her book, Guest of Honor. Prior to that, it was not common knowledge or even high on a Google search, so Davis began digging to unearth the real story. So how did this momentous dinner come about? Very innocently. TR [Roosevelt disliked being called Teddy] was a very impulsive man. He had an evening meeting with Booker T. Washington to get his advice on some [cabinet] appointments. He suspected the meeting might go long, yet he also had a family dinner booked with an old friend who was visiting. So he decided to combine them, although with hesitation. And yet in the end, he went ahead and invited Washington to dinner. Washington, too, hesitated before accepting. Both men were aware that this was a big step. Not only was this a non business-related gathering and implied social equality but also, women were going to be present—Mrs. Roosevelt and three of their children. When a White House reporter sent news of the dinner out on the wire service, it unleashed a tidal wave of fury, with stories printed that are unrepeatable now. Both men received death threats. Aside from the racial outrage, which included accusations that it had made Booker T. uppity and fueled Negro ambition, there was also criticism that TR was exercising private views in his role as a publicly elected official, something he had no right to do. How did this event get "lost to history"? Because the dinner was such a terrible scandal, it slowly began to get watered down. It was more palatable to think it was an office lunch or business meeting. And it was further "demoted" by saying it didn't take place at the White House dining room table and that ladies weren’t present. By the time Booker T. Washington died in 1915, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution—the first paper to have reported the scandalous dinner—reported it as a lunch in his obituary. But newspapers were "fish wrap" in those days, thrown out the next day. Thus, one of the most significant events on the road to racial equality went out with the morning trash. What is the historical significance now? There's such a direct line. It was tremendous act of courage, taking those five steps up, across the threshold, paving the way. . .And now a black man has dinner at the White House every night For the full-scale tale of the scandal surrounding this dinner, read 'Guest of Honor - Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation' (Atria, 2012) by Deborah Davis.