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In Ward’s Pond along the Emerald Necklace – https://www.emeraldnecklace.org/park-overview/

116 years ago today …

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Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt

… a black man sat down to dinner and it caused a national uproar. That man was Boooker T. Washington, President of Tuskegee, sitting down to dinner at the White House with President Theodore Roosevelt.

StarGazetteOct1901

It was not as if, as one paper noted, it was the first time “a negro had been the guest of the White House. During former administrations … Frederick Douglas and B. K. Bruce registrar of the treasury had attended White House receptions.” [1]

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Blanche Kelso Bruce and Frederick Douglass

And “Queen Lilliuokalani, whose skin is as dark hued as a full-blooded negro, was once a dinner guest of President Cleveland.” [1] So what was the difference?

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Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee

In an NPR interview about her book on the subject, Guest of Honor (2013), Deborah Davis notes that from a Southern perspective inviting a man to dine with your family was acknowledging him as a social equal. Such a man, as your social equal, could even woo your daughter. If that’s true, Roosevelt’s action, as President of the United States, must have come across as a slap in the face to those southerners whom he had been courting politically.

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excerpts from Weekly Clarion-Ledge, Mississippi 1901

In 1901, the nation was grappling with what was referred to as the Negro Problem. Millions of black people in the South freed for a generation. Some had moved north and west but some stayed having finally acquired some political voice with the right to vote, a right being methodically stripped.

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excerpt from Atlanta Constitutution 1901

By 1901 blacks had become refugees within their own country as they moved across the land, often up north, seeking new opportunities. For many of those who stayed in the South, invisible if not literal walls were being built between the races. Each state took their own approach.

OgdenStandard1901

Peoples’ fears and anxieties were heightened, and others’s sense of supremacy legitimized, by the fiery words of white supremacists like Ben Tillman of South Carolina and the Reverend Thomas F. Dixon.

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Benjamin Tillman and Thomas Dixon

Dixon had yet to publish the first book in his Ku Klux Klan trilogy that would inspire D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation fourteen years later, but as an extremely popular preacher of his day, Dixon was widely known, his lectures sold out and his words published in newspapers and journals nationwide.

McKinley-Theodore_Roosevelt_Campaign_and_Inaugural_Items,_ca._1900-1901_(4360047582)_(cropped01)

One month prior to the dinner, Vice President Roosevelt had been sworn in as President after McKinley’s death following an assassination attempt. Only thirty-six years since the end of the Civil War, Roosevelt sorely needed to keep a still-shaky Union together by remaining aware of, if not outright appeasing, a once again politically powerful South.

Booker_T._Washington and Family

Booker T. Washington and Family

Earlier in the year, Booker T. Washington had published his memoir Up From Slavery. For years he had traveled the world promoting the success and the ideal of Tuskegee, an educational institution that combined necessary academics with industrial training. In terms of the two sides of “the color line,” there were probably few other national figures as famous as Roosevelt and Washington.

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Theodore Roosevelt and Family

So for these two men to dine in the White House in 1901 was of significance. Evidence suggests that Washington was well aware of this fact whereas Roosevelt, with his impulsive nature, was less so.

BrooklynDailyEagle1901

The uproar incited by the press, especially the Southern press, was unprecedented. For those who felt threatened by freed blacks, the dinner, its portrayal in the press, conversations on the street and from the pulpit, fanned flames of hatred and gave reign to violence. After news of the dinner, Tillman, then a Congressman from South Carolina, is quoted as saying: “we shall have to kill a thousand niggers to get them back in their places”. He also says later that same year,

MoberlyWeeklyMonitorTillman1

excerpt from Moberly Weekly 1901

As Davis shares in her NPR interview, the impact of that dinner would have ripple effects across the decades. For instance in 1901 a poem was published and appeared in newspapers called Niggers in the White House. Six Months Hence. Written by an anonymous figure, the poem describes in all the derogatory ways possible how blacks had taken over the White House, but then it ends with a solution alluding to the two men’s sons and daughters …

kentuckynewspoemexcerpt

In 1929, the poem was sent to First Lady Lou Hoover as censure when she invited a black congressman’s wife, Jessie DePriest, to tea in the White House. At a time when Northern politicians were trying to enforce existing laws against racial discrimination, the tea became an event around which southern politicians could rally efforts to continue the segregation and disenfranchisement of blacks.

DePriestandHoover

Jessie DePriest and Lou Hoover

Clearly both Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt survived the dinner’s aftermath. Roosevelt would even be elected for a second term as President. Roosevelt and Washington would meet again, several more times, but they never dined again in the White House.

Sources & Additional Reading

Guest of Honor by Deborah Davis (2013)

http://www.npr.org/books/titles/152665080/guest-of-honor-booker-t-washington-theodore-roosevelt-and-the-white-house-dinner

[1]Star-Gazette (Elmira, NY), October 19, 1901

[2] Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, GA) January 13, 1901

https://www.newspapers.com/

Blanche Kelso Bruce

Frederick Douglass

Queen Liliuokalani

Benjamin Tillman

Thomas F. Dixon

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niggers_in_the_White_House

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessie_De_Priest_tea_at_the_White_House

 

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As I walked by the Charles yesterday, I could not help but think of the opening lines of that song, I was born by the river … 

 

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a leaf floating in the charles river

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“even God had to pee”

I think the lady meant Jesus, but in any case …

I heard her coming before I saw her. She made her way up the ramp with an awkward sliding gait, using a cane for additional support. I walked over to greet her. A small woman — a good wind could blow her down — but she exuded presence even when she wasn’t talking. Now when you enter the building where I was that day one of the first things you might see is the No Public Restroom sign, a not uncommon sight in the heart of Boston. And it was when she saw that sign that she made her declaration about God and peeing but she quickly moved on from that topic to talk about life more generally. And as the air around me became lightly perfumed by the scent of alcohol, I gently interjected to ask, “Ma’am, I see, but how can we help you today?” She seemed perplexed by the question so I added, “Would you like to sit in the sanctuary for a bit and maybe pray or something like that?” She looked me straight in the eye and said, “Of course!” Now when she went in, I did peer through the window to make sure that that was all that she was doing. She sat with head bowed and I let her be. Eventually she did come out and as I held the door for her — she was trying to coordinate handling several bags as well as her cane — she asked, “Now where’s the bathroom?”

After letting my colleague know I was going to be occupied for a while, I guided her to the restroom. It was a long walk because as she explained several times, she can’t walk fast anymore. As we came to the stairs, she held onto the railing for support. At one juncture, I took one of her bags. And all the while she talked to me, telling me of her daughters, her son out west who was buying a house where she might stay one day. As for today, she was waiting for a bus. “And I planned it just right,” she explained, “so that I have time to come here to pray and then go to the bathroom and then get to the bus stop. I got plenty of time. Cause you see I don’t like to be rushed.”

“Where are you going on the bus?” I asked. And when she said to the shelter, I asked which one and she said Pine Street Inn. I could only say, “I’ve only heard good things about Pine Street.” And she nodded.

Now by the time we make our way down the stairs, there is no railing for support and so I say, “If you need to, you can hold my arm.”

She leaned her whole self against my side and took my hand.

Resuming our slow walk toward the bathroom, she apologized, “I don’t walk fast anymore.” I said, “That’s okay.”

Eventually we made our ascent from the restroom, back up the stairs.

She said, “You’re a lot like my friend Sue. She doesn’t mind that I’m slow. She never rushes me. Sometimes she lets me stay at her place. I can take the bus there too. She’s got her own place you see. She’s the best friend I ever made at Pine Street.”

Finally back in the lobby she adjusts her bags and we agree after looking at the wall clock that she still has plenty of time to make it to the bus top for her journey to the shelter.

“What’s your name?” she asked. I told her and then I asked her name. With a big smile she said, “It’s Theresa. Like Mother Theresa. Maybe I’ll be a saint one day too.”

And then she was gone.

http://www.pinestreetinn.org/

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