History is like a photograph. Facts are facts, but how we understand them depends on who’s doing the framing. In her new book, “Guest of Honor,” about the famous White House dinner at which President Theodore Roosevelt hosted African American educator Booker T. Washington, Deborah Davis examines race relations in early 20th-century America through the lives of two of the era’s giants. With some success and one stumble, she depicts a brash, independent president and a former slave who became the most powerful black man of his time. Their dinner on Oct. 16, 1901, she argues, helped change the country.
What Davis does well is provide a panoramic view of America at the turn of the 20th century. Ours was still a young country, recovering from the Civil War and dealing with the post-Reconstruction South. Industry was on the upswing, but democracy was still a flawed enterprise. African Americans struggled for their newly won citizenship in a country that didn’t care much about their education and took their inferiority for granted. On one side was a North eager to exploit black labor but careful not to challenge white supremacy. On the other was a South willing to defend its caste system by any means necessary. A word, a look, any hint of being even an inch of “uppity Negro” could get you killed. Lynching was at epidemic levels, sometimes conducted before festive crowds who brought along their children and the occasional picnic lunch.
(Atria) - ‘Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation’ by Deborah Davis
But Washington rose to prominence in this context. The founder of Tuskegee Institute did so with his 1895 Atlanta Compromise Address, in which he urged Southern whites to seek cooperation with the industrious Negro, and for black people to prove their value by working hard at technical and menial jobs while not pressing the cause of social equality. This stance endeared him to hostile Southerners and Northern philanthropists alike. Until, that is, he sat down at a White House dinner table alongside Roosevelt and his family, including the first lady.
The dinner drew praise from some liberal whites, inspired pride in many blacks and sent Southern racists — as well as Northern ones — into a head-spinning rage. Reporters hounded Roosevelt and Washington. Racist headlines, cartoons and songs were relentless. And the threat of violence intensified.
Davis’s book is a marker of how far the country has come. But it also reminds us of a stubborn truth: how dangerous racism can be, whether it is politely paternalistic or viciously violent. “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that n----- will necessitate our killing a thousand n------ in the South before they will learn their place again,” Sen. Ben Tillman of South Carolina declared.
Davis offers readers a range of commentators on the dinner, from Tillman to Mark Twain to Scott Joplin, who wrote an opera about the occasion that is now lost. But she dwells too long on the similarities between Roosevelt’s and Washington’s lives — their marriages, their tragedies, their ambitions — without indicating whether those experiences helped forge closer personal ties. Arguably, it was their differences that largely shaped them: one man born to limitless possibility, the other to limited opportunities.