At the height of Booker T Washington’s fame, he received possibly his greatest honour – an invitation to dine at the White House on October 17, 1901, with the President, Theodore Roosevelt.
The pair had known each other well for several years, with Roosevelt often confiding in Washington, seeking his advice on issues of race. This meeting was to be no different, as they were to discuss Republican Party policy in the South and the issues between the blacks and whites.
However, reaction to the White House meeting was hostile, especially from Southern Whites who believed racial etiquette was being broken. The attacks though were not only aimed at Washington, but Roosevelt, who had to face the brunt of public anger for his decision to converse with a black man over issues of national importance.
‘As separate as the fingers on the hand’
Booker T Washington was also heavily criticised for his part in the White House meeting as many felt he was contradicting his speech made at Atlanta six years earlier, ‘In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress’. Often seen by his black critics as too much of a compromise, Washington’s speech in 1895 was an offer to the white community, in particular the Southern whites, that the races should stay separate, socially, but in order to progress, in business for example, both races had to work together to excel. By dining with Roosevelt, Washington had crossed a line; the act suggested he saw himself as equal to any white man.
One Chicago paper, reporting on the event, commented: ‘Every Southern man of intelligence honors Booker T Washington… but we cannot admit him to social equality, because that involves a principle which is vital to the preservation of the Southern white race from the evils of intermarriage with blacks’.
‘I can’t call him mister’
James Ford Rhodes reported as well on the significance of Washington’s invitation, by saying, ‘Now when I meet a man who has done all this, I can’t call him Booker like I call any ordinary n*gger, but by thunder, I can’t call a n*gger mister, so I just say professor!’.
Before Roosevelt had sent out the invitation to Washington he confided in a friend, saying he wasn’t sure whether to invite a black man to the White House. Then, having said it, he felt so ashamed of himself that at once he went out and sent the invitation.
Afterwards, due to the outcry of the incident, Roosevelt never invited Washington or any other black man to the White House again.
But for Washington, the meeting did wonders for his reputation. Both his black critics and the Southern Whites agreed that it had only improved Washington’s image. The meeting confirmed that Washington had taken Frederick Douglass‘ place historically as the leader of the black race and that Washington had become the most influential black man in America.
Henry M. Turner was reported to have told Booker T Washington, after the White House meeting, that ‘You are about to be the great representative and hero of the Negro race’. Turner’s comments proved to be true and, in years to come, Washington became an inspiration for others. One such man, half a century later, was Martin Luther King, Jnr.