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Booker T. Washington c. 1900.

Booker T. Washington c. 1900. Library of Congress

Theodore Roosevelt became president after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. The early months of his administration were a tense period of trial and error as Roosevelt had not been elected president. Fond of dinners as a means of entertaining, the Roosevelts held them nearly every night over the last few months of 1901 and constructed the guest lists with an eye to politics. One of these early dinners put White House hospitality on the front pages. This dinner actually occurred a few days before the official period of mourning for McKinley had ended. On October 16, Roosevelt had among his guests the educator Booker T. Washington, whose autobiography, Up From Slavery, was then highly popular. Roosevelt often invited people to dinner to discuss public affairs when the day’s meeting calendar was too full. Washington arrived with an invitation at the north door promptly at eight. In the Blue Room he joined his fellow dinner guest, Philip B. Stewart of Colorado. Dinner was probably served in the State Dining Room since the party was in evening dress. The guests remembered a simple, cordial evening. The next morning following a news release of the White House guest list, the event sparked the hottest news since the McKinley assassination. Editorials in the South–but not only the South–were harsh in their criticism of Roosevelt. The furor over the dinner–the first time that an African American was entertained at the White House–revealed the structure’s symbolic power and the bigotry then at large in the nation.

Read more: William Seale, The President’s House, White House Historical Association, 1986; Henry Chase, "Memorable Visitors: Classic White House Encounters," American Visions, February-March, 1995, 26-33.

Black clerks at the Treasury Department in the late 19th century.

Black clerks at the Treasury Department in the late 19th century. Library of Congress

Civil Rights activist and journalist William Monroe Trotter caused a stir in 1914 because he strongly protested President Woodrow Wilson’s support for segregation of black federal employees in the workplace. Trotter came to the White House as a founder and representative of the National Independent Political League, a militant organization that fought for racial and social justice, and the publisher of The Guardian, a Boston newspaper dedicated to the fight against racial discrimination. In a meeting with Wilson, Trotter directly challenged the president for permitting the segregation of black and white government clerks. Angered by this confrontation that questioned his integrity, President Wilson declared himself "offended" and had Trotter removed from the White House. Trotter then took his case to the press and ridiculed the president for introducing segregation into the federal work force as a means to prevent racial friction. The activist noted that black and white clerks had worked together without problems for more than 50 years. Trotter devoted his career to the fight against racial discrimination and to the development of independent political action in the black community. He led numerous non-violent protests and demonstrations against conservative black leaders like Booker T. Washington for being too accommodating and attacked films and plays that glorified the Ku Klux Klan. At that time Trotter’s confrontational tactics were highly controversial, but his activism and approach became a model for the Civil Rights Movement from 1940 to 1970.

Read more: Henry Chase, "Memorable Visitors: Classic White House Encounters," American Visions, February-March, 1995, 26-33.

First Lady Lou Hoover, c. 1920.

First Lady Lou Hoover, c. 1920. Library of Congress

Oscar De Priest’s election to Congress as a Republican representative from Chicago in 1928 created an interesting political and social dilemma for the White House. De Priest was the only black to serve in Congress during his three terms (1928-1935). Even before De Priest took his seat in 1929, Washington buzzed about the arrival of a black congressman and what this meant to the strict segregation that pervaded life in the capital. Several southern members refused office assignments adjacent to De Priest and the possible invitation of Mrs. De Priest to the traditional White House tea for congressional wives teas sparked controversy. Eventually, Lou Hoover arranged a separate tea party for Mrs. De Priest at the White House with a few chosen guests. However, the appearance of a black woman as a guest at the executive residence created a stir and drew strident protests from the South. As in 1901 with Booker T. Washington’s visit, the White House’s powerful role as a national symbol aroused the ire of Southerners who did not want the impression conveyed that the nation would sanction the social equality of the races.

Read more: Henry Chase, "Memorable Visitors: Classic White House Encounters," American Visions, February-March, 1995, 26-33.

Marian Anderson rehearsing with Leonard Bernstein in 1947.

Marian Anderson rehearsing with Leonard Bernstein in 1947. Photographer: Ruth Orkin. Library of Congress

One of the most memorable performances in White House history was Marian Anderson’s rendition of Schubert’s "Ave Maria" as the culmination of a gala "Evening of American Music" presented by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in 1939. The entertainment was planned for a state visit by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England. Anderson’s powerful voice soared that evening. Arturo Toscanini once remarked that Anderson was a talent that "comes once in a hundred years." Anderson had performed "Ave Maria" just a few months earlier as the climax to an outdoor concert that moved to tears the audience of 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial. That concert was arranged on the Mall because the Daughters of the American Revolution refused her a singing engagement at Constitution Hall because she was black. Mrs. Roosevelt immediately resigned from the DAR and invited Anderson to sing for the British royals despite bitter criticism from segregationists.

Read More: Elise Kirk, "Black Performers: A Picture History," American Visions, February-March, 1995, 22-25; Elise Kirk, Musical Highlights from the White House, Krieger, 1992.

Harry Truman ordered integration of military units.

Harry Truman ordered integration of military units. National Archives

Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball on April 15, 1947 signaling a historic step forward in the movement to end segregation. However, a less conspicuous event of greater significance to African Americans was President Truman’s controversial 1948 executive order desegregating the military and banning discriminatory hiring practices in the federal government. Issued in an election year, the executive order was a bold move that thrilled African Americans and outraged Southern whites. Truman held to a strong plank for civil rights in the Democratic platform that resulted in a walkout by Southern Democrats who formed the States Rights Democratic Party. The "Dixiecrats" nominated South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond as their presidential candidate. Despite the party split, Truman’s bold endorsement of civil rights enabled the president to attain the votes of African Americans in northern cities in several key electoral states, which contributed to his dramatic victory over Republican Thomas Dewey in 1948.

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