By Gary Rawlins, Black Books and Reviews
Barack Obama’s inauguration was a cathartic moment for a nation still haunted by a malignant racist past. A black man had been sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. At the very least, voters had partially removed a tumor from the body politic. Until that cold January day, the thought of an African-American ensconced in the Oval Office was febrile black fantasy.
How far the nation has progressed racially is captured in Guest of Honor, Deborah Davis’ account of a White House dinner engagement in 1901 that shocked the nation. On Oct. 16 of that year, Booker T. Washington dined at the White House with Theodore Roosevelt and his family.
At the time of the dinner, the two men had formed a clandestine working relationship to tackle race issues. Careful to communicate through back channels, Washington would offer advice on a range of topics, including political appointments in the South.
In a feat of compressed storytelling, Davis covers the rise and fall of their controversial relationship. She moves gracefully through the lives of the two leaders, seesawing back and forth. From opposite ends of American society, they reach the pinnacle of their segregated worlds. Born to privilege, the boisterous Roosevelt, called T.R. in the book, maneuvers his way to the White House. Born a mulatto slave, the cautious Washington, called Booker T., hews a path to Tuskegee Institute.
Davis explains that there was historical precedent for their relationship. “By joining forces the two men would be emulating Abraham Lincoln’s famous political partnership with the black statesman Frederick Douglass.”
Roosevelt’s respect for Washington was sealed after reading his autobiography, Up from Slavery. Fond as he was of Washington, Roosevelt was no unbiased beckon. The age of natural slavery and scientific racism had done much to corrupt the perceptual terrain between blacks and whites.
After the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt, who had served as colonel of the famous Rough Riders, suggested that the black soldiers who fought were less heroic than their white counterparts.
“I attribute the trouble to the superstition and fear of the darkey, natural in those but a few generations removed from the wildest savagery,” he said at the time.
When Roosevelt made that statement, Washington was the reigning African-American civil rights leader, having inherited the crown from Douglass, who had died several years before.
Davis tells an engrossing tale of Washington’s ascent. In 1881, he arrives in Tuskegee, Ala., to find his total budget was $2000. He establishes what would become Tuskegee Institute in a dilapidated shed owned by a local church. By 1900, “the school that started out with one teacher, thirty students, and a leaky roof now boasted 86 faculty members … 1,100 undergraduates and a 2,300-acre campus.”
Washington became head of Tuskegee on the recommendation of Samuel Chapman Armstrong, the founder of what was then called the Hampton Normal and AgriculturalSchool. A Civil War commander of black troops, Armstrong established Hampton to help former slaves achieve self-sufficiency. Washington had been a star student.
Washington’s ascent accelerated after his famous speech in 1895 at the Southern States International Cotton Exhibition in Atlanta, Ga. The speech, which critics called the Atlanta Compromise, articulated his theory that aggressive political maneuvering to alter the post-Reconstruction order was futile. He had largely accepted segregation as inevitable, Davis writes, and he focused his energies on giving students practical skills to cope in a hostile world and building strong African-American institutions. For instance, Washington had convinced wealthy white philanthropists to fund hundreds of segregated schools for blacks in the South. Donations came from Gilded Age titans like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie.
The Atlanta speech is remembered for his powerful gesture to convey how the races could live apart but work together for the economic good of the nation. He held up his hand with fingers spread apart, then clenched his fist to signify solidarity. The crowd of mostly segregation-friendly Southerners went wild.
“Self-help was the core of his philosophy,” Davis says. Tuskegee promoted technical and remedial courses, not “high-sounding subjects” like Latin and Greek. Besides farming and the industrial arts, students received instruction in Christian morality, personal hygiene and social etiquette. The most powerful weapon against ignorance was, he once said, the toothbrush.
Davis provides plenty of context to Washington’s conservatism, explaining that he struggled to keep Tuskegee viable amid a miasma of bigotry and hate. To fight Jim Crow, he had to placate its true believers. Bigots such as Mississippi politician James K. Vandaman complained that the black man was “a lazy, lying, lustful animal which no conceivable amount of training can transform into a tolerable citizen.”
At times, the book comes out swinging against Washington’s perceived enemies, including W.E.B. Dubois, though Davis also offers their points of view.
In the 1890s, Dubois emerged as a major critic of Washington, whom he derided as the “Great Accommodator” for his acceptance of segregation. Dubois embraced much more aggressive goals then existing civil rights groups, demanding an immediate end to Jim Crow and promising persistent agitation against racism.
The buildup to the controversial dinner excites like a novel, with heroic blacks bedeviled by villainous whites. Dinner isn’t served until page 188.
A fast-moving story builds to a climax at the dinner. African-Americans had visited the White House before, but had never been invited to dine there. Davis suggests that neither man truly reckoned with the repercussions of what on its face was an innocent invitation to a political confidant.
When news of the dinner broke the next morning, the story “reverberated across the nation like a thunderclap,” Davis writes.
An outraged South felt betrayed. All the goodwill built up after the Atlanta Compromise speech vanished. A black man, even a luminary like Washington, dining with the president’s family was interpreted as a threat to the status quo.
“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,” South Carolina Sen. Ben Tillman said in a speech to his approving constituency.
Davis fittingly concludes the book with what obituaries of the two men were saying about the historic dinner. Washington was the first to die, on Nov. 14, 1915; Roosevelt on Feb. 6, 1919. Most newspapers recast the dinner as a lunch and erased the wife and kids from the event, as if a daytime tete-a-tete was less of an affront to Southern sensibilities.
About the Book Review Author
Gary Rawlins is a Washington, D.C. area journalist and Civil War historian.