Last night I finished Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation. Deborah Davis’s book tells the story of Booker T. Washington’s October 1901 visit to the White House and the succeeding fallout. African Americans had been guests at the Executive Mansion before; what made this so controversial was that it was the first time a black person had sat sat down there for supper.
Booker T. and Roosevelt had met previously and, hitting it off, agreed to meet again. The circumstances had changed significantly in the meantime. Now he was President Roosevelt. The youngest president ever had only been in office for all of a month. What’s more, he had ascended to the presidency because of the McKinley assassination, not the electoral process. He was turning to Booker T. for advice on governmental appointments throughout the Land of Dixie. A wise judge of character, Washington proved to be a good consultant.
To say that there was an uproar over the dinner would be an understatement. Bourbon Democrats such as Pitchfork Ben Tillman had a field day explaining the political and sexual implications of the dinner to outraged constituents. Ragtime musician Scott Joplin even wrote an opera, called “A Guest of Honor,” about the episode. Sadly, the musical score has been lost and so we know little about it today other than the title. As you can see from the image above, Joplin was not the only one finding material in the controversy.
The book is an easy read and I learned a great deal about both men, especially Washington. Davis does a good job explaining who these men are and how they arrived at where they are. There is much on the relationship between Washington and W.E.B. DuBois as well.
Roosevelt was taken aback by the controversy and did not have Washington or any other African American to the White House during his presidency. Still, the two had a good working relationship. Many judges, postmasters, and others–white and black–would eventually owe their presidential appointments to Washington’s invisible hand. This was no small think in the impoverished postwar South.
(image/D. Long Miller’s popular song is believed to be a response to Booker T. Washington’s 1901 visit to the White House)