On Oct. 16, 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt invited a black man, Booker T. Washington, to dinner—and set off a scandal.
It was a typical gesture for the impulsive Roosevelt, who had been made vice president in hopes that his progressive ideals would wither in the largely impotent position. But the assassination of William McKinley made Roosevelt president, and the Republican establishment’s nightmares began. Washington was the embodiment of the rags-to-riches American dream, an ex-slave risen to become the head of the Tuskegee Institute. Davis (Gilded: How Newport Became America's Richest Resort, 2009, etc.) weaves together the two men’s biographies with a portrait of their era—simultaneously a time of immense progress and widespread bigotry. Roosevelt was convinced that the nation’s growth required African-Americans to take a fuller role in national affairs; he also saw the black vote in the South as a key ingredient of Republican power. Shortly after assuming the presidency, he began quietly to consult Washington on political appointments in the South. The dinner seemed a natural outgrowth of that relationship, and it went smoothly enough. However, after an Atlanta reporter wrote about it, the South erupted in fury; a line had been crossed. The dinner became an excuse for lynchings and other racial persecutions and led to a cooling of what had been an important working relationship. Some progressive blacks, including W.E.B. Du Bois, criticized the dinner as setting back racial relations. On the other hand, Scott Joplin used it as the theme of an opera, A Guest of Honor. Davis gives a clear overview of race relations in the closing decades of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, with plenty of additional detail on the times.
A well-researched, highly readable treatment of an important era in racial relations, encapsulated in the meeting of two of the era’s most significant men.