An Infamous Dinner: Washington, Roosevelt and Race in America

The Takeaway

In November 2008, as Sen. John McCain conceded the presidency to Barack Obama, McCain commented on the historic nature of Obama’s election with a reference to an infamous White House dinner: “A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt’s invitation of Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage in many quarters. America today is a world away from the cruel and frightful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States,” McCain said. The racial divides of turn-of-the-century America are well-known. Jim Crow ruled the South, and racial attitudes weren’t all that progressive in the North, either.  There were, in effect, two Americas in 1901: A white America and a black America. While many African-Americans worked in white homes, black employees were certainly not welcome at white dinner tables.
With a single dinner invitation, President Roosevelt turned that notion on its head. A new book chronicles the lives of Roosevelt and his dinner guest, Booker T. Washington.  Deborah Davis  is the author of “Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt and the White House Dinner that Shocked a Nation.”

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