In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt made a hasty and controversial decision: he invited Booker T. Washington, an African American scholar, author, and leader, to dine at the White House. The American people were outraged that a president would extend such an invitation to a man of color. Dining signified equality; breaking bread together is an almost timeless symbol of human-to-human recognition and respect. And many white Americans would be having none of that.
Roosevelt was lambasted by newspapers and citizens alike. Now, the dinner is seen as a momentous occasion in the history of inequality in America – unfortunately, the immediate consequences of the dinner were far from positive, however.
It was not the first time a black man had been invited to the White House – a famous relationship to note was that between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Yet this was different, and it had entirely to do with the circumstances under which Washington would be meeting with Roosevelt. It was unheard of at the time for a black man to dine with a white man, as segregation was the law, one that Roosevelt was implicitly breaking by having a black man dine with his family.
Deborah Davis, author of Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation, put it this way: "the feeling was... that if you invited a man to sit at your table, you were actually inviting him to woo your daughter. He should feel perfectly comfortable asking your daughter to marry him." So, by a few logical maneuvers, Roosevelt was essentially opening the door to concepts like interracial couples.
Roosevelt initially invited Washington to the White House to get his opinion on political matters. When the President realized how late the meeting was going to be, his initial, impulsive thought was to simply invite the man to dinner.
And then Roosevelt hesitated – and immediately became embarrassed about the hesitation. Known for his impulsiveness, Roosevelt decided to send the invitation out quickly, so he wouldn't have a chance to change his mind or consider the implications.
A president had reportedly never been criticized the way Roosevelt was after his dinner with Washington (vulgar drawings were even made of his wife). A few choice quotes illustrate the malice people felt towards the President for eschewing what they saw as proper social etiquette.
The Memphis Commercial Appeal wrote: "President Roosevelt has committed a blunder that is worse than a crime, and no atonement or future act of his can remove the self-imprinted stigma."
The Memphis Scimitar claimed that Roosevelt's dinner with Washington was "the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by a citizen of the United States."
Both men clearly understood the implications of the dinner, so much so that Washington was as hesitant to accept the invitation as Roosevelt was to extend it. Washington recognized that a meal with the President implied a certain level of "social equality" that most conservative Southerners would not look kindly on – and he was correct. The backlash was severe, and Washington never dined at night with Roosevelt again.
NPR speculates that Washington's thoughts ran something along the lines of: 'This is going to be a real problem for me, but I have no right to refuse. It's a landmark moment, and I have to accept this on behalf of my whole race."