White House To Break Another Color Barrier In Jan.

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President Theodore Roosevelt caused a national incident in 1901 when he invited Booker T. Washington to the White House. Washington became the first African-American to be a guest at a White House dinner. More than 100 years later, the first African-American president and his family will move into the White House in January.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Barack Obama's inauguration next month as the first African-American president represents a milestone for the country. One way to measure how far the nation has come is to recall an earlier milestone, as Mr. Obama's Republican rival, John McCain, did in his concession speech.

(Soundbite of concession speech, November 4, 2008)

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): 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 prideful 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.

WERTHEIMER: Teddy Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington weren't trying to break any color barriers when they had dinner together back in 1901. Their intention was more modest and more politically calculated, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Teddy Roosevelt had barely taken the oath of office, after the assignation of William McKinley, when he dashed off a letter to Booker T. Washington. The new president wanted to cancel the planned meeting with the famous educator at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Roosevelt asked if Washington might come north to visit him in the White House instead, adding, I must see you as soon as possible. The reason for Roosevelt's urgency might surprise people of our time; it had to do with internal party politics.

Dr. H. W. BRANDS (History, University of Texas; Author, "TR: The Last Romantic"): Booker Washington was essentially the head Republican boss in the South. He was a power broker.

HORSLEY: H. W. Brands teaches history at the University of Texas, and he's the author of "TR: The Last Romantic." He says Roosevelt wasn't pursuing a landmark in race relations so much as a practical political alliance with the best-known African-American of his time. Born into slavery, Washington worked his way through college, then built the Tuskegee Institute from the ground up, helping to train generations of black teachers and trades-people. Washington quickly accepted Roosevelt's invitation, showing up in evening dress at the White House a few weeks later, just in time for dinner. According to the Atlanta Constitution, White House dinners in those days were family affairs, with Mrs. Roosevelt and two children present. Afterwards, the president would take his guest to the library for cigars and political talk. H. W. Brands picks up the story.

Dr. BRANDS: Roosevelt already, although he had barely warmed the chair of his desk in the White House, was looking towards the convention of 1904. So, Roosevelt was already trying to get his ducks in a row, in the form of getting Washington to support him. It was basically a meeting of two political bosses.

HORSLEY: Roosevelt sought advice from Washington about who should get political patronage jobs in the South. The following day, Washington followed up with a letter from New York, suggesting a promising candidate. By that time, news that a black man had dined at the White House had already made the papers. While blacks and many northerners were pleased by the breakthrough, most white Southerners were not. Washington's biographer, Louis Harlan, says Southern newspapers worked at fanning the flames.

Dr. LOUIS HARLAN (Professor Emeritus, History, University of Maryland; Author, "Booker T. Washington: Volume 1: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856-1901"): There was outrage in the South, ever so largely contrived; a newspaper frenzy of people who had never voted for Roosevelt said they would never vote for him again.

HORSLEY: Roosevelt, who never before had to worry much about Southern politics, may have been caught off guard by the reaction. But Harlan says ultimately, it was Washington who paid the greater price.

Dr. HARLAN: That was very much the turning point in the life of Booker T. Washington. Whites never trusted him quite as completely as they had just before this not to violate this rigid code of race relations.

HORSLEY: Washington was an unlikely target for such reactionary sentiment. Brands says, for years, Washington had been counseling blacks against agitating for social or political equality, emphasizing the need for vocational training and economic self-help first.

Dr. BRANDS: Booker Washington was branded an accommodationist by many of the people who criticized him. And the essence of Washington's policy was, we're going to choose our battles and we're going to take one step forward at a time. In 1895, he gave the speech in Atlanta that came to be called "The Atlanta Compromise," where he essentially said, we're not going to demand equal political rights, but we do want help in improving our economic condition.

(Soundbite of speech, "The Atlanta Compromise")

Mr. BOOKER T. WASHINGTON (Freed Slave; African-American Civil Rights Leader): Those of my race who depend on bettering their condition...

HORSLEY: Washington recited portions of his Atlanta Comprise speech in 1906. It's the only known recording of his voice.

Mr. WASHINGTON: I would say cast down your bucket where you are; cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom you are surrounded.

HORSLEY: For his part, Teddy Roosevelt was hardly progressive when it came to race relations, at least by today's standards. He generally viewed blacks as inferior, but Brands says he was willing to set aside that prejudice for someone like Washington.

Dr. BRANDS: Roosevelt had great respect for accomplishment. He respected Washington because Booker Washington had accomplished great things from a very humble beginning.

HORSLEY: A few weeks after his controversial dinner with Washington, Roosevelt wrote to a friend, saying, the only wise and honorable and Christian thing to do is to treat each black man and each white man strictly on his merits. Roosevelt would continue to seek advice from Washington, but he never again invited him to dinner. A little over a century later, an African-American will be issuing his own invitations to dine at the White House, and this time, Barack Obama will be sitting at the head of the table. Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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