ROOSEVELT, Theodore. Typed letter signed ("Theodore Roosevelt") as President, with one autograph correction, to New York Congressman Lucius Littauer (1859-1944), Washington, 24 October 1901. 1½ pages, 4to (8 15/16 x 7 1/8 in.), White House stationery, minor soiling to page 2, traces of mounting on verso.
ROOSEVELT DEFENDS HIS MEETING WITH BOOKER T. WASHINGTON AT THE WHITE HOUSE: "I WOULD NOT LOSE MY SELF-RESPECT BY FEARING TO HAVE A MAN LIKE BOOKER T. WASHINGTON TO DINNER"
A remarkable letter in which Roosevelt spells out his progressive racial attitudes in the face of a storm of criticism generated by his meeting, in the White House, with Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), head of the Tuskegee Institute. The same year as this letter was written, Washington, who had been born a slave, had published his classic autobiographical account Up From Slavery. Even prior to becoming President, Roosevelt had occasionally conferred with the eminent African-American educator, asking his advice on appointments and candidates in the South. After becoming President, Roosevelt invited Washington to meet with him at the White House for a similar conference.
Washington came to the White House on October 16 and, when the meeting lasted longer than anticipated, the President asked him to join him for dinner. Washington later noted that they "talked a considerable length concerning plans about the South" (Miller, Theodore Roosevelt: A Life, p. 362). Although their dinner was a private affair, a reporter leaked the news and a tidal wave of criticism erupted. Reaction was predictably very vocal in the deep South where Roosevelt was accused of "encouraging racial mixing and social equality for blacks" (Ibid). Roosevelt was shocked by the furor.
Here, responding to Littauer who had apparently praised his actions in the matter, Roosevelt writes: "As to the Booker T. Washington incident, I had no thought whatever of anything save of having a chance of showing some little respect to a man whom I cordially esteem as a good citizen and good American." He expresses dismay over the public reaction: "The outburst of feeling in the South about it is to me literally inexplicable. It does not anger me. As far as I am personally concerned I regard their attacks with the most contemptuous indifference, but I am very melancholy that such feeling should exist in such bitterly aggravated form in any part of the country." He vows not to bend to pressure from these critics: "There are certain points where I would not swerve from my views if the entire people was a unit against me, and this is one of them. I would not lose my self-respect by fearing to have a man like Booker T. Washington to dinner if it cost me every political friend I have got."
Provenance: Kenneth W. Rendell, 1986.