Confronting Race At The White House In 1929

This week's scene of the president, vice president, a Harvard professor and Cambridge policeman meeting so civilly over beers might be an occasion to note how much history can change. Host Scott Simon takes a moment to note that back in 1929, Lou Hoover, the wife of President Herbert Hoover, used an event at the White House as an opportunity to confront the race issue by inviting the wife of a newly-elected African-American congressman to tea.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This week's scene of the president, vice-president, Harvard professor and Cambridge policeman meeting so civilly over beers might be an occasion to note how much history can change. In the summer of 1929, President Herbert Hoover's wife, Lou Hoover, planed the traditional tea for the wives of all U.S. congressmen. And in those days, most representatives were congress men. Oscar Depriest, a Republican from Chicago, when Chicago had Republicans, was the first African-American elected to Congress since Reconstruction. No Africa-American had been invited to dine at the White House since Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington had dinner there in 1901.

Life in official Washington, D.C. was unofficially as segregated as the Deep South. Would Lou Hoover invite Mrs. Jessie DePriest, the Congressman's wife, and controversy? The Hoovers didn't blanch. Mrs. DePriest was invited, admitted, and all the guests reportedly had a nice tea. Some newspaper editorials assailed the Hoover for defiling the White House. Mrs. Hoover was serene that she'd done the right and gracious thing. Eighty years later, the president of United States is African-American, and the most controversial feature of this week's meeting was that Vice President Biden had a non-alcoholic beer. Is he the designated driver?

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