Booker T. Washington Dines with Theodore Roosevelt, Americans Outraged

In October of 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House. As the founder of the Tuskegee Institute and a respected leader of the African American community, Washington was an important ally for Roosevelt. The new president needed advice about appointments in the South and about the black vote, and looked to Washington for guidance.

Roosevelt had previously hosted African Americans for dinner at the New York governor’s mansion, and African Americans had previously attended events at the White House. The invitation to dinner, however—and its tacit assertion of social equality—was outrageous to conservative southerners.

Because the dinner party also included Roosevelt’s wife and his teenage daughter, Alice, public criticism was rampant. The Memphis Commercial Appeal, for example, declared that "President Roosevelt has committed a blunder that is worse than a crime, and no atonement or future act of his can remove the self-imprinted stigma."

In the aftermath Booker T. Washington received death threats. The dinner backlash had been largely forgotten until John McCain referred to the dinner in his 2008 presidential concession speech, citing it as a marker for change in an America that had just elected its first African American president.