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Franklin Roosevelt's Controversial Dinner With Booker T. Washington

Posted: Updated: 05/24/2012 9:27 am

History Book

The following is an excerpt from "Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Franklin 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.

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Filed by Madeleine Crum  |