Booker T. Washington dinner at the White House

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Booker T. Washington; Theodore Roosevelt

On October 16, 1901, shortly after moving into the White House, President Theodore Roosevelt invited his adviser, the African American spokesman Booker T. Washington, to dine with him and his family. The event provoked an outpouring of condemnation from white politicians and press in the American South.[1] This reaction affected subsequent White House practice and no other African American was invited to dinner for almost thirty years.[2]


Roosevelt, while Governor of New York, frequently had black guests to dinner and sometimes invited them to sleep over.[3]

This instance was not the first time African Americans were invited to dinner at the White House. In 1798 John Adams had dined in the President's House in Philadelphia with Joseph Bunel (a mulatto representative of the Government of Haiti) and his black wife.[4][5] Black people, including leaders such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, had been received at the White House by Presidents Lincoln, Grant, Hayes and Cleveland. At the invitation of First Lady Lucy Hayes, Marie Selika Williams became the first African American professional musician to appear at the White House.[6]


The following day, the White House released a statement headed, "Booker T Washington of Tuskegee, Alabama, dined with the President last evening."[citation needed]

The response from the southern press and politicians was immediate, sustained and vicious. James K. Vardaman, a Democrat from Mississippi, complained that the White House was now, "so saturated with the odor of nigger that the rats had taken refuge in the stable;" the Memphis Scimitar declared it "the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States,"[7] and on 25 October the Missouri Sedalia Sentinel published on its front page a poem entitled "Niggers in the White House," which ended suggesting that either the president's daughter should marry Washington or his son one of Washington's relatives. Senator Benjamin Tillman stated, “Now that Roosevelt has eaten with that nigger Washington, we shall have to kill a thousand niggers to get them back at their places.”

Governor of Georgia Allen Candler commented, “No self-respecting man can ally himself with the President, after what has occurred." He added that "No Southerner can respect any white man who would eat with a negro.” Governor of South Carolina Miles McSweeney stated, “No white man who has eaten with a negro can be respected; it is simply a question of whether those who are invited to dine are fit to marry the sisters and daughters of their hosts.”[8]

William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1896, 1900 and 1908, ridiculed the invitation as a device to secure black votes and promote the pipe dream of "social equality" between the races.[9]

The Northern presses were more generous, acknowledging Washington's accomplishments and suggesting that the dinner was an attempt by Roosevelt to emphasize he was everybody's president.[10] While some in the black community responded positively – such as Bishop Henry Turner who said to Washington, "You are about to be the great representative and hero of the Negro race, notwithstanding you have been very conservative" – other black leaders were less enthusiastic. William Monroe Trotter, a radical opponent of Washington, said the dinner showed him up as "a hypocrite who supports social segregation between blacks and whites while he himself dines at the White House."[11]

The White House first responded to the outcry from the south by claiming that the meal had not occurred and that the Roosevelt women had not been at dinner with a black man, while some White House personnel said it was a luncheon not an evening meal.[12] Washington made no comment at the time.[13]

In popular culture[edit]

A Guest of Honor, the first opera created by Scott Joplin, was based on Washington's dinner at the White House

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gould, Louis L (28 November 2011). Theodore Roosevelt. USA: Oxford University Press. p. 45. ISBN 978-0-19979701-1. His first action in October 1901 was to invite the prominent black leader Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House. […] When the social event news became public, southern newspapers erupted with denunciations of Roosevelt's breach of the color line.
  2. ^ Lusane, Clarence (23 January 2013). The Black History of the White House. City Lights Publishers. p. 256. ISBN 978-0-87286611-9. LCCN 2010036925. Although the controversy eventually died down, its impact shaped White House politics for decades. No black person would be invited to dinner at the White House again for nearly thirty years
  3. ^ Lusane 2013, p. 251: ‘When Roosevelt was governor of New York he had regularly had African Americans over for supper and even occasionally had invited them to spend the night.’
  4. ^ Lusane 2013, pp. 253–4: ‘…during the latter half of the nineteenth century the White House had opened its doors to black political leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and others […] Bunel, who was mulatto, and his wife, who was black, had dinner with Adams.’
  5. ^ Jeansonne, Glen (2012). The Life of Herbert Hoover: Fighting Quaker, 1928–1933. USA: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 306. ISBN 978-0-23010309-2. An examination of the record revealed that Lincoln, Hayes, Grant, Coolidge and Cleveland all had had black guests at the White House
  6. ^ Hendricks, Nancy (2015-10-13). America's First Ladies: A Historical Encyclopedia and Primary Document Collection of the Remarkable Women of the White House: A Historical Encyclopedia and Primary Document Collection of the Remarkable Women of the White House. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-61069883-2.
  7. ^ Lusane 2013, p. 254
  8. ^ "The most damnable outrage that has ever been perpetrated", Hankering for History, 25 March 2013
  9. ^ Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero: the life of William Jennings Bryan (2006) p. 114
  10. ^ Berlin, Edward A. (1996). King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era. Oxford University Press. p. 106. ISBN 0-19510108-1. The Sedalia Sentinel printed a poem on page one entitled "Niggers in the White House," which concludes with a black man marrying the President's daughter. (Note 65: SeS, Oct. 25, 1901, 1.) […] Major newspapers in the north had a more charitable view. They recognized Washington's unique achievements and suggested that the invitation was Roosevelt's way of demonstrating he was president of all the people.
  11. ^ Lusane 2013, p. 255: ‘William Monroe Trotter rebuked the wizard of Tuskegee and called him a hypocrite for supporting social segregation between the races and then going to sup at the White House.’
  12. ^ Lusane 2013, p. 256.
  13. ^ Verney, Kevern J (3 April 2013). The Art of the Possible: Booker T. Washington and Black Leadership in the United States 1881–1925. Taylor & Francis. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-81533723-2. I did not give out a single interview and did not discuss the matter in any way.

Further reading[edit]

  • Burns, Adam (2019). "Courting white southerners: Theodore Roosevelt’s quest for the heart of the South." American Nineteenth Century History 20.1: 1-18.
  • Norrell, Robert J. (Spring 2009). "When Teddy Roosevelt Invited Booker T. Washington to Dine at the White House". The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. The JBHE Foundation. 63 (63): 70–74. JSTOR 40407606.
  • Severn, John K.; William Warren Rogers (January 1976). "Theodore Roosevelt Entertains Booker T. Washington: Florida's Reaction to the White House Dinner". The Florida Historical Quarterly. Florida Historical Society. 54 (3): 306–318. JSTOR 30151288.
  • White, Arthur O. (January 1973). "Booker T. Washington's Florida Incident, 1903-1904". The Florida Historical Quarterly. Florida Historical Society. 51 (3): 227–249. JSTOR 30151545.
  • "The Night President Teddy Roosevelt Invited Booker T. Washington to Dinner". The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. The JBHE Foundation, Inc. 35 (35): 24–25. Spring 2002. doi:10.2307/3133821. JSTOR 3133821.