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.
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.
Still, by Oct. 16, 1901, they were seasoned politicians building an alliance of mutual self-interest. Taking office after William McKinley’s assassination and needing to consolidate his base, Roosevelt relied on Washington for advice about appointments in the South and about the black vote. Washington eagerly obliged. His adviser status strengthened his already great power among African Americans, and on occasion he quietly got Roosevelt to replace white federal officials who supported lynching with more civilized ones.
Davis also wades into the debate between Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, the Harvard-trained scholar who was a founder of the NAACP. And this is where her frame begins to crack.
Washington and Du Bois represent the two sides of a great debate in their time. What was the best strategy for confronting racist oppression? Washington, who rubbed shoulders with philanthropists and a president, promoted a moderate strategy of strengthening Negro education (vocational rather than intellectual) while working behind the scenes for reform, and often kept silent in public about segregation and violence. The younger, Harvard-educated Du Bois advocated direct protest against racism and resented what he considered to be Washington’s self-promotion and courting of white favor while allowing blacks to be relegated to second-class status. Du Bois and his allies feared that supporting schools like the Tuskegee Institute would mean less funding for black academic study.
Davis supports Robert J. Norell’s accusation that certain historians have oversimplified Washington as willing to accommodate white supremacy — an Uncle Tom. Norrell is the author of “Up From History: The Life of Booker T. Washington,” in which he criticizes those historians for adopting Du Bois’s perspective on Washington. Norrell presents his subject as a complex man working tirelessly for what he believed during extremely hostile times. In this reading, Washington was adept at masking his feelings about white supremacy while working subversively to pry its fingers from his people’s throats.
In her chapter “Blindsided,” Davis describes Du Bois and other critics of Washington as the “enemy within,” though she allows that they had legitimate differences with Washington. Still, she seems to cast these critics as obstacles to a great man’s work — almost as if there should have been only one leader. Du Bois, she adds, may have been jealous of Washington, perhaps believing he himself would have made a better White House dinner guest. Davis also notes that Washington and Du Bois might have fared better if they had found ways to collaborate.
She certainly doesn’t lack confidence in her assertions — an interesting phenomenon in somone who, by her own admission, hadn’t heard of the White House dinner until Sen. John McCain mentioned it in his concession speech in the 2008 presidential election. The Du Bois-Washington dynamic was far more involved and nuanced than the one Davis depicts in her book. Moreover, Washington was well aware of his black critics, so much so that he desperately tried to undermine and manipulate them.
Was the Roosevelt-Washington dinner history-making? Yes, a first is a first. But how much it changed the country is debatable. Conditions for African Americans worsened during Washington and Roosevelt’s watch, and the 20th-century civil rights movement had its roots in the approach of Du Bois and his allies.
Intentionally or not, Davis seems to diminish Du Bois, an unfortunate outcome to readers who know the dynamics between the scholar-activist and slave-turned-educator. In fact, the two men interacted in more important ways than did Washington and Roosevelt. And Washington and Du Bois even had occasion to dine together.
GUEST OF HONOR
Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation
By Deborah Davis
Atria. 308 pp. $26