In honor of Black History Month, I recall this story about one of my favorite presidents and the great civil rights leader Booker T. Washington.
Booker T. Washington was born into slavery. He was freed by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, attended schools in Virginia, and eventually became a leading proponent of civil rights in America and principal of the Tuskegee Institute.
As an orator and educator, Washington advanced the cause of African Americans in America, and as an advisor to politicians and Presidents, he helped enact effective change. He was also the first African American to dine with a sitting United States President at the White House.
African Americans had been invited to meetings at the White House before, but on October 16, 1901, President Teddy Roosevelt invited Booker to dine with him and his family. The dinner became a national topic of conversation around race and civil rights.
Roosevelt often dined with thought leaders and activists as a convivial entertainer and free-thinker. Nor was this the first occasion he had dined with people of color. As Governor of New York, Roosevelt often shared meals with diverse acquaintances.
His invitation to Washington, however, was a matter of impulse. The two had a meeting on the books, and at the last moment, Roosevelt decided to make it a dinner invitation. Washington would continue to counsel TR throughout his presidency and President Taft after.