Presidents and the Potomac
For the politicians, civil servants, and accompanying citizenry of the new federal government—freshly arrived in 1800 from comfortable, sophisticated Philadelphia—the...
The following excerpt is from Nancy Beck Young’s Lou Hoover: Activist First Lady, University of Kansas Press, 2004. The White House Historical Association provided a grant to support the book project.
Despite all her preparation and planning, Lou Henry Hoover encountered controversy over the issue of race and White House protocol. On June 12, 1929, Jessie DePriest was a White House guest at a tea party honoring the spouses of members of Congress. As first lady, Hoover hosted the event, which received no publicity beforehand but produced a nationwide controversy afterward. DePriest was the wife of Republican Oscar Stanton DePriest, the first African American member of Congress since 1901. He represented a Chicago district and reflected the expansion of black suffrage in the North. At the same time, Herbert Hoover and the Republicans were courting white southerners away from the Democrats. This social occasion had strong political overtones, and it embodied Lou Hoover’s efforts to combine activism with tradition. 1 Never a progressive on civil rights Hoover nonetheless recognized the most egregious aspects of discrimination within official circles in Washington, D.C.
The enforcement of a rigid color line at the White House had become standard practice with the advent of exclusionary Jim Crow legislation. Many of the laws and customs crafted at the end of the nineteenth century sanctioning a racial caste system actually veiled white southern concerns about women, who were spending more time in the public sphere. Most blatant were the railroad car restrictions, designed to ensure the purity of white women who might otherwise come into contact with African American men while traveling alone on public transportation. Arguments in favor of such measures augmented a nationwide rollback of most, if not all, of the Reconstruction-era advances. Theodore Roosevelt’s 1901 White House dinner invitation to conservative African American leader Booker T. Washington angered white southerners and was the last integrated social event in the executive mansion until Lou Henry Hoover became first lady. That DePriest broke the color line at the White House—and in the presence of white women—made the event intolerable for racists in both the North and the South.2
Ironically, despite all the controversy it generated, DePriest’s visit was not the first instance of an African American guest in the White House during the Hoover years. Robert R. Moton, an African American political leader and the president of Tuskegee Institute, came to the White House on May 16, 1929, fully one month before the DePriest tea, and he returned five more times in 1929 and 1930. The first Moton visit, though, generated no hostile press, despite careful reporting in black media outlets and a press conference with White House reporters. There were three reasons for this lack of public outcry: (1) the Moton visit was business in nature, not social; (2) his visit occurred in May, before a northern member of Congress created controversy in June by pushing for racial equality; and Moton made no issue of his visit. In contrast, Congressman DePriest used the White House tea, along with the negative media reaction to it, to advocate a strengthened civil rights agenda.3 Although these explanations reveal some of the reasons for the white backlash, they overlook the role of gender in the controversy—specifically, the white South’s often fanatic attempts to “protect” white women from any harm that might result from their association with African Americans, both male and female.
Lou Hoover had two options, both of which would have resolved the dilemma of having Jessie DePriest as a guest at the White House, but she considered neither of them. First, not having any tea parties for congressional spouses would have damaged her husband’s effectiveness as president because of the ill will created between the White House and Congress. Second, excluding DePriest would have been rude and out of character for Hoover, whose life included numerous small but significant testimonials to her belief in equality. Indeed, notions of fairness loomed large in Hoover’s approach to race and White House entertaining.
That sense of justice can be traced back to her childhood in Whittier, where she had African American friends, but it was tempered by the racial mores she had absorbed in Texas. When she and her husband purchased a home in Washington, D.C., they refused to sign a restrictive covenant promising that they would never sell or rent to African Americans or Jews. And Hoover had once paid the college tuition of a black maid because she believed that the young woman had leadership potential. Lou Hoover knew that her personal preference to include Jessie DePriest accorded with her official duty.
The story of how the tea was staged shows Lou Hoover’s independent thinking with regard to this social justice issue. In late May 1929, her secretary wrote to Walter Newton, a leading political aide to the president, and inquired,
“the question arises as to what can be done about the family of our new colored representative. Mrs. Hoover wishes me to ask for your suggestion, and to remind you that we must think not only of this occasion, but of what is to be done during the entire term of the Representative.” 4
Hoover’s solution was unique: instead of following standard practice and giving just one tea, at which DePriest would in all likelihood receive discourteous treatment, Hoover divided the guest list and hosted several teas. In no sense, though, was the DePriest tea a “segregated” affair. Segregation, as practiced in the United States in 1929, entailed substandard facilities and discrimination against its African American targets. At the White House, DePriest received hospitality on a par with that accorded all other congressional spouses. More important, the separate tea was planned not to insult her but to protect her from boorish behavior. Both Mary Randolph and Newton advised Hoover regarding the event, indicating the dual social and political purpose of the tea.
To prevent any boycotts of the teas, which would have embarrassed the administration and the DePriests, Hoover arranged for DePriest to attend the last tea party. Racist-minded congressional spouses would have looked silly had they boycotted the earlier teas to protest an event that had not yet occurred, so they had no choice but to attend. On the first lady’s orders, Jessie DePriest’s invitation was not issued until June 5, the date of the next to last tea party, and Randolph instructed the messenger to keep its contents “confidential” and “refrain from giving information regarding it.” 5
The first teas were substantially larger, approximately 180 to 220 women, than the one DePriest attended, with 1 male and 14 female guests. Besides DePriest and Hoover, the guests at the June 12 Green Room tea included the first lady’s sister, her secretaries, the wives of the attorney general and the secretary of war, and other congressional spouses, all supporters of Hoover’s motives. Numerous guest list drafts exist in Hoover’s papers and give testimony to the assiduousness with which she planned this sensitive event. A few of the women at the June 12 tea had attended earlier affairs at which their racial attitudes had no doubt been scrutinized.
Because of Lou Hoover’s careful planning, the event took place without incident. Some of the women shook hands with Jessie DePriest, and others did not; the first lady shook no hands but greeted all her guests warmly (Hoover sometimes shook hands at receptions and sometimes did not). Congressman DePriest reported in the press that his wife had had a good time and had been treated courteously and with respect. Years later, Ruth Fesler said of the DePriest tea,
“It was a very momentous occasion. I remember the butler, Ellis—his eyes just popping as he passed the teacakes around. You can imagine what this meant to him—to see one of his race being entertained by the wife of the President, and he enjoyed it.” 6
The public reaction, however, indicated opposition to equality for both African Americans and women. Several southern state legislatures passed resolutions of condemnation, a vast amount of mail was sent to the White House, and a significant outpouring of newspaper coverage followed the event. More important, Hoover’s dual strategy of including DePriest and avoiding offense to the white South failed. Southern criticism of the first lady ran the gamut from polite racism to snide remarks to bigoted speech. A Texas man cautioned that the DePriest tea “can only bring harm to the negroes of the South.…This kind of treatment of the negro does not set well with those of the southland, who love the negro in his place, but not at our dinner table.”
A Tennessee woman, who penned the word “white” and underlined it twice beside her signature, agreed, noting, “the innocent, law abiding negro citizen of the South will be the one to suffer.” 7 Others complained that the timing of the tea in close proximity to the anniversary of the delivery of the Emancipation Proclamation in many of the southern states insulted white southerners.
Paradoxically, male and female writers outside the South wrote equally biased letters. A Nebraska man informed the first lady:
“My WIFE and I are dumb-founded tonight to read in the papers that you have entertained a nigger lady.…It places them on equality with the CAUCASIAN RACE, and assists for the amalgamation of the races. I fear you do not understand the amount of damage you have done to this Country.”
This critic closed with the observation:
“I’ll admit however its a nigger vote getter for your distinguished husband, whom we all supported because of the fact we wanted an AMERICAN on guard at Washington, D.C.”
A Chicago woman proclaimed:
“This nation of white people elected you and your husband to take care of the nation and to live in that great place white house we did not think we would have to be ashamed of our actions later on.…You must love the dirty smelly niggers no decent white woman would invite a nigger. Shame on you forever.”
Other letter writers correlated white skin color with the White House:
“I had always thought the White House was for white people, and not Negroes, I would have thought you had just a little more pride than to put your self on the level with niggers, it is a crime to disgrace the White House.” 8
Only northern and liberal periodicals inveighed against the racism exhibited after the tea. Critics and supporters alike saw Hoover’s actions as a first step toward civil rights. A Pennsylvania woman who puzzled over the spread of racist behavior from the South into the District of Columbia called Lou Hoover a “noble, brave lady” and declared,
“if we only had more women like yourself who would rise above this unholy prejudice, this false estimate of race differences, it would soon be forever banished from our midst. It would be of the things that have been and are no more. So I believe your heroic deed will help to emancipate human thought from the slavery of intellectual and moral prejudices.” 9
Others decried the ridiculousness of requiring someone to apologize for being kind to another person, as much of the South wanted Hoover to do for hosting the DePriest tea. Still others justified Hoover’s actions from a Christian perspective.
Although there were some supporters of the event, the volume of complaints forced the White House into a defensive and silent pose about the social affair. One historian suggested that this quiescence contributed to the view that the Hoovers had bungled into the controversy, but such a conclusion would be wrong. Neither the president nor his wife ever sought publicity for the sake of publicity. Instead, they behaved as they thought best, rarely apologizing for their actions or justifying their choices. Not surprisingly, Lou Henry Hoover did not follow through with her stand for social justice by chastising her critics or demanding further reforms; she just moved on to the next task needing her attention. As her husband recalled, Lou was “oversensitive” to the politically and racially inspired invective, which she viewed as “just plain wickedness.” 10
Although the tea and its aftermath might have inspired others to a greater assault on segregation, Lou Henry Hoover’s “moral standards” for behavior made it impossible for her to enter the political arena. She recognized but did not address the larger social issues that created the controversy. This omission retarded any gains her courageous invitation had achieved, and it revealed the limits of her activism. Indeed, for all her innovations as first lady, she never fully embraced partisan politics as a venue for her talents, preferring instead to work through voluntary organizations for her public policy goals. The behavior of “evil-minded persons…often selected by the electors” inhibited any partisan inclinations she might have had.” 11
The East and West Wings of the White House carefully debated how to respond to the public uproar. The memoranda documenting these conversations reflect Lou Hoover’s sense of propriety about what she could and could not say publicly. One aide suggested that the first lady contend “that as the wife of the President of the United States it is not for her to discriminate officially against any individual Senators or Congressmen.” Another memorandum, likely from the White House social secretary’s office, argued,
“we realize that Mrs. Hoover is perhaps not the one to make the statements in the questioned paragraphs. But perhaps it would be wise if those facts should get across by somebody else? Should it be signed by Miss Randolph as Secretary since it was addressed to Mrs. Hoover?” 12
Eventually, the volume of mail became so huge that all the correspondence was routed to Lawrence Richey, a secretary to the president. The administration then tried to bury the matter. Thus, the DePriest controversy revealed the political dynamics of Lou Henry Hoover’s White House entertaining, and it was also the first significant warning that she should pay close attention to the demands of tradition.
Hoover’s quiet dedication and determination to treat all congressional spouses equally contradicted social conventions regarding how an elite white woman holding the position of first lady should behave. Thus, the DePriest tea controversy exposed numerous conflicting views about racial and gender etiquette in 1929. When Hoover purposefully positioned herself on the “wrong” side of that divide, she accumulated many critics who were only too willing to castigate her for other breaks with tradition. Such negative reactions to her entertaining agenda caused Hoover to balance her activist bent with a respect for tradition, especially with regard to White House social affairs.
The DePriest tea also marred the Hoover administration’s “southern strategy”—a complex plan to win the support of voters who preferred the economic and social policies of the Republican Party. During the 1928 campaign against Al Smith, the strategy had proved successful. Herbert Hoover had carried Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia, taking these states for the GOP for the first time since Reconstruction. What he most desired was a reformed southern Republican party that ran more substantive campaigns. Such a political shift, he believed, would force the southern Democrats to abandon the politics of white supremacy in favor of issue-based contests. The DePriest tea, though, confused rather than clarified Herbert Hoover’s southern strategy by heightening white racism, not ameliorating it. 13 That neither Herbert nor Lou Hoover crafted a public political or moral rebuttal to their critics suggested much about their lack of political flexibility and the weaknesses of their activism.
Discordantly neither the media nor the public paid any attention to another White House social affair that included both white and African American guests. This event differed because the principals were male, not female. Just weeks after the DePriest tea, the Hoovers hosted the annual garden party for disabled veterans, attended by both blacks and whites. The fact that the men "mixed indiscriminately" in the receiving line further suggests the potency of the double standard in issues involving race and gender.14
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