Theodore Roosevelt's Controversial Dinner With Booker T. Washington

The following is an excerpt from "Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation" [Atria, $26.00]. This shortened version of a chapter titles "Dinner is Served" details Booker T.'s simultaneous nervousness and confidence as he became the first black man invited to the White House as a guest. The chapter weaves together an analysis of race and politics with historical information on presidential dining.

The afternoon passed quickly as Booker T. conferred with friends, sent off telegrams, and considered his wardrobe. Would his daily uniform—a jacket, a tie, and a starched white shirt with a spanking clean collar—be appropriate for dinner at the White House? Or was he required to wear evening dress?

Booker T. posed the question to Mrs. McKinlay, but she had never been a guest of the President and did not know the answer.

Whitfield stepped in with a quick solution. He jumped into his buggy and drove straight to the White House, where he consulted George Cortelyou, the administration’s top expert on protocol. Cortelyou confirmed that the President would wear formal attire that evening and advised Booker T. to do the same.

Luckily, Booker T. had packed a black dress suit and he gave it to Mrs. McKinlay to send out for pressing. Meanwhile, there was nothing to do but wait. He wasn’t sure how dinner with the President would play out, but at least he knew he would be properly attired for the occasion.

Mrs. McKinlay fussed over his suit until it was perfect, and her husband kindly offered to drive him to his destination so he could travel in style. Leaving enough time to be prompt for his 7:30 appointment, Booker T. climbed up into the McKinlay carriage. It moved purposefully through the district until it reached the White House, where it turned into the circular drive and halted under the mansion’s impressive porte cochere. This was where bystanders gathered during the day to watch Kermit and Ethel perform daredevil tricks on their new bicycles, but tonight, the parklike area was deserted. Booker T. said good-bye and thanks to Whitfield, stepped out of the carriage, and slowly climbed the stairs—one, two, three, four, five—pausing in front of the two uniformed men who flanked the glass-paneled entrance.

Did he imagine a look of disapproval from one of the black doorkeepers—was it Possum Jerry?—as he crossed the threshold into the vestibule? Was the old servant thinking, Don’t you know your place? No matter, Booker T. said to himself as he moved forward confidently. Tonight there was no such thing as a “place,” and there were no limits to what a black man could or couldn’t do... not if he were dining at the White House. He was escorted across the entrance hall and around the multicolored Tiffany screen that separated the public area from the rest of the house. The mansion’s private reception areas, including the Red, Green, and Blue Rooms, were on the other side. These days, the Roosevelts liked to meet and greet their guests in the Blue Room, which, despite Edith’s efforts, still looked like an overstuffed parlor in a Victorian manse. The period of mourning for President McKinley was in force, and much had been written in the newspapers about the fact that the Roosevelts would not host any official events until the New Year, although it was perfectly proper for them to have small “family” dinners, such as the one tonight. This moratorium on large-scale entertaining was helpful in that it gave the new First Family time to determine their personal approach to White House hospitality.

Each president had a different style, and some administrations were more social than others. John and Abigail Adams had been the first presidential couple to occupy the White House, in 1800, but the building was still unfinished and barely habitable (Mrs. Adams used the drafty East Room to dry her laundry). With a mere four months remaining in his term, President Adams had time to host only one pleasant but hasty reception before moving out.

When Thomas Jefferson, the country’s next chief executive, took office he championed a revolutionary approach to presidential social life: democracy. Some Americans envisioned their leader as a European-styled royal, with a palace and a high and mighty manner to go with it. But Jefferson wanted the new country to have a new etiquette. He preferred shaking hands to the courtly tradition of bowing, and he promoted egalitarianism at his dinner parties by seating his guests at a round table, so no individual ranked higher than another. He wasn’t too proud to invite his butcher (and his butcher’s son) to mingle with statesmen and members of Washington society. Jefferson may have campaigned for a less imperial Washington, but the two presidents who followed him, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, liked pomp, pageantry, and lots of rules. Monroe required foreign ministers to wear their full regalia when visiting the White House, and they were happy to comply because dressing up made them feel more important.

Similarly, Adams, who had spent a great deal of time in Europe, maintained a strict dress code for his guests, insisting on silk stockings and satin shoes for evening receptions—and that was for the men.

The Roosevelts and their guests exchanged pleasantries and promptly (and rather unceremoniously) headed down the hall for the dinner table. Henry Adams, a friend and frequent visitor to the White House, would complain that, early on in their White House days, the Roosevelts went into dinner “with as much chaff and informality as though Theodore were still a Civil Service Commissioner.” He preferred a little more pomp and circumstance and a bar or two of “Hail to the Chief.” But TR was such a charismatic figure that all eyes turned to him whether or not there was a musical cue. One dazzled White House guest from abroad compared him to a natural wonder. “I have seen two tremendous works of nature in America. One is Niagara Falls and the other is the President of the United States,” he wrote admiringly.

The little procession would have entered one of the two White House dining rooms. The smaller one, though designated for family, was one possible destination, since as soon as the Roosevelts moved in they had ordered a bigger top for the table to accommodate TR’s daily assortment of guests. But occasionally they used the State Dining Room for private dinners, depending on their mood and the size of their party. It was larger than the other space, but not so vast that they felt lost in it. In fact, the room was woefully undersized for large events, and there were times when the staff had to seat guests at spillover tables in the hallway. Yet with its twin chandeliers, giant mirror, and abundance of gilt, the State Dining Room was a more suitable backdrop for gentlemen wearing formal evening attire.

Both venues featured oval tables. On a typical evening en famille, TR and Edith generally liked to sit opposite each other in the middle instead of at the ends. On this night, Edith wisely placed herself between the fidgety younger boys, where she could keep an eye on them, and invited Booker T. and Philip Stewart to take the seats of honor on either side of the President. They were attended by white-gloved waiters, and the President had his valet, Henry Pinckney, who had recently been promoted to the position of White House steward, at hand, anticipating his every need.

At these family meals, guests often sat down to a table of gay, miscellaneous china patterns—the bread and butter plates might sport colorful little flags, while the dinner plates bore a delicate Haviland design. When Edith became First Lady, she expressed an interest in the sets of presidential china that had accumulated in the mansion. She intended to organize the dishes for display and put a stop to the practice of selling off any broken or unusable pieces, because she found it undignified for the White House to deal in souvenirs. Instead the fragments were sent straight to the bottom of the Potomac River.

Eventually, Edith ordered 120 place settings of gold and white Wedgwood (with the Great Seal of the United States prominently displayed at the top) to use at state dinners.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referenced "Franklin Theodore Roosevelt" instead of "Theodore Roosevelt." It has now been changed.

As for the food on those plates, TR loved to eat, and announced that he would serve “only the best” food, champagne,
and cigars during his tenure, even though the President had to pay for most entertaining expenses out of his own pocket.

The Roosevelts liked their “three squares” and they assumed their guests felt the same way. Americans were fascinated by the food that was served at the White House. No matter how many times TR protested that he, his wife, and their children ate like any average American family, people imagined them dining on exotic fare. The perennial interest in presidential cuisine sparked numerous cookbooks, including one titled The White House Cookbook by Mrs. F. L. Gillette and Hugo Ziemann, steward of the White House, first published in 1887.

The book offered a week’s sampling of menus for each month of the year. For tonight, a Wednesday in October, for example, Gillette and Ziemann recommended a savory, autumnal meal that included:

Mock Turtle Soup
Boiled Fillet of Veal,
Potatoes à la Delmonico
Fried Egg Plant & Mashed Squash
Saucer Puddings
Apple Snow Crisp Cookies

Recipes for the proposed dishes were included in the book. Annie O’Rourke, the Roosevelts’ cook, may or may not have followed the volume’s culinary advice when she began her dinner preparations earlier in the day. She was more likely to select choices from a list of reliable family favorites since guests always seemed to like them. One such staple was the classic Southern combination of hominy with gravy, a dish so beloved by TR that it sometimes appeared on the table at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He also pioneered the idea of serving vegetables harvested from the fields and gardens of Sagamore Hill, including sweet potatoes, fiddlehead ferns, dandelion greens, and wild lettuce.

Booker T. was doubtless a bit nervous at the outset of the dinner, but soon relaxed and felt perfectly at ease at the President’s table. Edith was noted for her ability to make each guest feel as if he were the only person she wanted to see, and she conversed with princes, cowboys, and shopgirls with equal aplomb. Nothing could rattle her composure after three years of entertaining the rambunctious Rough Riders who regularly turned up for “grub.” (One particularly “rough” rider was arrested for firing his gun at a woman and tried to reassure the horrified Roosevelts by explaining, “I wasn’t shooting at the lady, I was shooting at my wife.”) At least Booker T. was a man Edith admired.

TR was full of chatter and goodwill. The first thing that every guest noticed about the President was that he never
stopped talking, and he did so with such emphasis that his words burst forth like “projectiles.” Henry Adams complained that no one could get a word in edgewise. “Theodore absorbed the conversation,” he wrote after one evening together, “and if he tried me ten years ago, he crushes me now. To say that I enjoyed it would be . . . a gratuitous piece of deceit.” Another White House visitor said that when Roosevelt was at the table, “hardly an observation was made by anyone else... and in fact, it would only have been possible by the exercise of a sort of brutal force.” Sometimes when TR was monopolizing the conversation, Edith sent him a not-so-subtle signal by quietly saying “Theodore! Theodore!” The President would sheepishly answer, “Why, Edie, I was only—” in mock defense, but he appreciated the fact that she helped to keep his ego in check.

As for Booker T., whether the topic was Southern politics, the “Negro problem,” or the best way to raise chickens, he
could hold his own at any gathering. He was smart and good-humored, but unlike his host, he took his time when it came to conversation. He chose his words carefully because he didn’t always have the luxury of speaking his mind. But Booker T.’s folksy yet dignified style served him well at the tables of millionaires, statesmen, royals, and now, the President.

The gentlemen retired to the Red Room to discuss politics over coffee. One newspaper reported that “it is here, in the genial glow of the red hangings and the crimson shaded lights that the President comes after dinner with... ‘political authorities’ to discuss affairs of state.” According to Booker T., they “talked at considerable length concerning plans about the South.” There were many more appointments to be made in Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and other places. More important, it wasn’t too early to start cultivating Republicans in the South. TR needed votes for the 1904 election, and he envisioned Booker T., Stewart, and supporters like them acting as grassroots emissaries who would use their influence to attract new blood to the party. The reaction to the Jones appointment in Alabama was encouraging. A group of prosperous white businessmen (one was the postmaster of Tuskegee and a friend of Booker T.’s) announced their intention to start a Republican Club in Montgomery to jump-start TR’s campaign.

All in all, the evening was pleasant and productive for all concerned. But when Booker T. talked about the dinner in years to come, it was the fact that TR’s family was alongside him at the table, not his new role as political advisor, that seemed to mean the most to him. “I dined with the President and members of his family,” he said on more than one occasion. At about ten o’clock, Booker T. said good night. He and TR would see each other in a week, on October 23, at the Yale University Bicentennial in New Haven, Connecticut, where a huge convocation was planned. He rushed off to catch the last train to New York, where he had scheduled a full day of appointments.

The Roosevelts and their houseguest retired, the guards settled into their evening routine.