Cover image for Guest of honor : Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House dinner that shocked a nation
Guest of honor : Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House dinner that shocked a nation

1st Atria Books hardcover ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Atria Books, c2012.
Physical Description:
x, 308 p., [8] p. of plates : col. ill. ; 25 cm.
The Big House -- Strive and succeed -- The force that wins -- An exemplary young gentleman -- Brick by brick -- Great expectations -- Let me keep loving -- Moving up -- Rough riding -- Rising stars -- Jump Jim Crow -- Pride and prejudice -- That damned cowboy -- Best behavior -- Lazy days - -A wild ride -- The people's president -- The family circus -- Behind closed doors -- Fathers and daughters -- Bold moves -- Dinner is served -- A big stink -- Sitting ducks -- Undercover -- Blindsided -- Slipping away -- Eulogies.
Documents the 1901 White House dinner shared by former slave Booker T. Washington and President Theodore Roosevelt, documenting the ensuing scandal and the ways in which the event reflected post-Civil War politics and race relations.


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book 973.911092 DAV 1 1
Book 973.911092 DAV 1 1
Book 973.911092 DAV 1 1
Book 973.911092 DAV 1 1

On Order



In this revealing social history, one remarkable White House dinner becomes a lens through which to examine race, politics, and the lives and legacies of two of America's most iconic figures.

In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to have dinner at the executive mansion with the First Family. The next morning, news that the president had dined with a black man--and former slave--sent shock waves through the nation. Although African Americans had helped build the White House and had worked for most of the presidents, not a single one had ever been invited to dine there. Fueled by inflammatory newspaper articles, political cartoons, and even vulgar songs, the scandal escalated and threatened to topple two of America's greatest men.

In this smart, accessible narrative, one seemingly ordinary dinner becomes a window onto post-Civil War American history and politics, and onto the lives of two dynamic men whose experiences and philosophies connect in unexpected ways. Deborah Davis also introduces dozens of other fascinating figures who have previously occupied the margins and footnotes of history, creating a lively and vastly entertaining book that reconfirms her place as one of our most talented popular historians.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this engaging social history, Davis (Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X) uses the story of a dinner to depict the friendship between two of America's most impressive leaders: Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt. Booker T. and TR came from extraordinarily disparate backgrounds-the first born a slave, the second born a member of America's highest social tier. Early in their careers, however, the visionary educator and the politician formed a fascinating and mutually beneficial relationship that granted each a leg up in their respective spheres-that is, until Booker T. joined TR and his family for dinner at the White House. What should have been an important step forward in racial equality ended up being so aggravating to Southern racists that the brilliant partnership between the two men was forever thrown off its tracks, and blacks in the South became even more vulnerable to violent attacks from whites fearful of "Negro Aspiration." In fluid prose and with clear respect for her subject matter, Davis paints a vivid picture of race relations at the turn of the 20th century-a story resonating with today's fraught political and racial landscape. Agent: Scott Waxman, the Waxman Agency. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Booklist Review

Even those readers who lived through the civil rights struggle and the racial environment of the 1950s and 1960s will likely be surprised by this portrayal of the far more oppressive racial attitudes prevalent at the turn of the twentieth century. As Davis indicates, even many so-called Progressives adhered to pseudoscientific doctrines of social Darwinism and Anglo-Saxon racial superiority. Given that context, the unprecedented dinner invitation extended by President Teddy Roosevelt to preeminent black educator Booker T. Washington assumed great importance. Davis first expends considerable effort in drawing parallels between the two men. Aside from showing both as intense strivers, her efforts aren't convincing. When she gets to the meeting itself and the reactions to it, she is on firm ground, providing an often striking snapshot of the prejudices and schisms in American society a century ago.--Freeman, Jay Copyright 2010 Booklist

Kirkus Review

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.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal Review

For Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt's 1901 invitation to dinner at the White House confirmed his rise from slavery to becoming the first head of the Tuskegee Institute and informal African American adviser to the president. The invitation was a presidential first, yet, as Davis (The Oprah Winfrey Show: Reflections on an American Legacy) relates, it proved a mixed blessing, especially for Washington. The Jim Crow press vehemently condemned the dinner for its suggestion of social equality between the races. Five years later, TR undermined what his outreach to Washington had accomplished by dishonorably discharging 167 African American soldiers after the so-called Brownsville Affair, in which evidence was planted against accused black soldiers who were innocent of shootings in the Texas town. Though Abraham Lincoln looms large in this story, TR's colonial/military values ultimately trumped broader concerns for justice. VERDICT While Davis breaks no new ground and only a couple of the chapters actually deal with the dinner and its aftermath, she is a skilled social historian who sets her readable story in broad historical context. Her book will appeal to general readers interested in the American presidency and African American history. Recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 6/13/11.]-William D. Pederson, Louisiana State Univ., Shreveport (c) Copyright 2012. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Guest of Honor THE BIG HOUSE Hale's Ford, Virginia, was "about as near to nowhere as any locality gets to be." That's how Booker T. described the rural community in Franklin County where he was born in April 1856, or maybe '57 or '58--he was never sure of the year because the records kept by slaves were very sketchy. He wasn't sure about his father, either, although rumor had it that he was a white man from a nearby plantation, possibly the Hatcher farm or the Ferguson place. His mother, Jane, cooked for her owners, the Burroughs family, and lived with her three children, John, Booker T., and little Amanda, in a broken-down cabin on their property. The floor was dirt, the walls were cracked, and the centerpiece of the dilapidated one-room dwelling was a large pit where the Burroughses stored their sweet potatoes for the winter. There was also a swinging "cat" door for a house pet to use as an entrance and exit, something that always amused Booker T. because there were enough holes in the broken walls to provide full access for a whole litter of cats. Jane had a husband, a slave named Washington Ferguson who belonged to the Ferguson family next door, but she saw him infrequently because he was hired out on jobs far from home. Whenever he visited, Wash proved to be a hard, unsentimental man with little patience for his two stepsons or his daughter, Amanda. During the Civil War he escaped to West Virginia, where he became a free man. Not that his new life was easy. Wash toiled in the salt mines of the Kanawha Valley and endured long separations from his wife back in Hale's Ford. Although Booker T. always referred to the Burroughs home as the "big house," there was nothing big about it. The word plantation usually evoked images of stately white mansions with Roman columns and sweeping verandas, but Jones and Elizabeth Burroughs and, at various times, some or all of their fourteen children lived in a nondescript, five-room house made of logs. They were working farmers, not Southern aristocrats, and the ten slaves they owned were an investment as well as a source of labor. Each slave had a dollar value. Jane, who was getting on in years, was worth $250, while Booker T., who had a lifetime of work ahead of him, was assessed at $400. Daily life for Booker T. was defined by what he didn't have and couldn't do. He and his siblings never slept in a bed or sat down at a table to share a meal. Instead they ate like "dumb animals," he later recalled, grabbing "a piece of bread here and a scrap of meat there." Even kernels of corn that had been overlooked by the pigs were fair game for a hungry boy. Having a mother who was a cook made things worse because she prepared the meals for the "big house" in her own fireplace, and the tantalizing scents of forbidden foods reminded the children of what they were missing. Occasionally Jane would see to it that a bootlegged chicken came their way but, more than anything, Booker T. coveted the ginger cakes he saw his young mistresses serve their visitors. He thought the delicacies, sweet with molasses and fragrant with the exotic scent of ginger, were "the most tempting and desirable things" he had ever seen. Freedom, in his childish imagination , was an unlimited supply of ginger cakes. Booker T.'s dream was to learn to read. His favorite chore was to escort one of the Burroughs daughters to the Frog Pond Schoolhouse down the road. After she would go inside, he lingered and listened at the window, fascinated by the lessons and recitations he heard. He couldn't make much sense of it, just enough to know that he wanted to enter this "paradise" and learn more. This was out of the question because teaching a slave to read was against the law in Virginia and everywhere else in the South. Besides, his other chores beckoned. There was corn to deliver to the mill, water to distribute to the field hands, and plenty of cleaning and sweeping. The job he enjoyed most was fanning the dining room while his owners ate their meals. It wasn't hard--all he had to do was work a pulley that operated a system of paper fans--and he could be privy to the family's conversations. They discussed news of the ongoing war between the South and the North, and the machinations of Abraham Lincoln, the man they deemed responsible for all their troubles. In the slave quarters, however, Lincoln was a god. Booker T. was often awakened by the sound of his mother praying for Lincoln to win the war, so she and her children could be free. Other slaves shared her reverence for the Union leader and, according to Booker T., " all their dreams and hopes of freedom were in some way or other coupled with the name of Lincoln." In April 1865, Lincoln's forces entered Richmond, Virginia, and Union soldiers brought news of victory to slaves throughout the state. Jane, her children, and the rest of the slaves were called to the big house. Assembled on the front porch, they listened excitedly as the Emancipation Proclamation was read to them by a Union officer. The incredible truth that they were free sank in. As the Burroughses watched the rejoicing of their former slaves, they seemed sad, not only because of the loss of their property, Booker T. observed, but also because they would be " parting with those who were in many ways very close to them." Some slaves, especially the older ones, decided to stay with the Burroughses because they could not imagine a life other than the one they knew. But Jane made up her mind that the only way to experience freedom was to leave the plantation. The family jubilantly packed their belongings in a small cart and set out to join Wash Ferguson in West Virginia. Booker T. and his siblings had to walk and camp in the wilderness throughout the two-hundred-mile trek to their new home. There were long days, cold nights, and even a terrifying encounter with a giant snake in an abandoned cabin. But their newly acquired freedom made the band of travelers feel euphoric and invincible. Casting a shadow over Booker T.'s happiness was the sad news of Abraham Lincoln's assassination. The great leader was fatally shot on April 14, 1865. Even as Booker T. celebrated his own promising future, he mourned the death of his hero, who had virtually transformed him from a piece of property into a proud and independent citizen of the United States. FIVE HUNDRED MILES from the backwoods of Virginia, in the heart of New York City, six-year-old Theodore Roosevelt and his little brother, Elliott, solemnly stood at a second-floor window in the Union Square mansion owned by their wealthy grandfather, Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt. It was April 25, 1865, and the two young boys were enthralled by the sight of Abraham Lincoln's funeral procession passing directly in front of the house. The President's body, which had been on view in Washington, DC, was on its way to its final resting place in Springfield, Illinois, by way of Baltimore, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Jersey City, and New York, where a significant tribute was in progress. Theodore, who was born in New York City on October 27, 1858, worshipped Lincoln. But one of his earliest life lessons was that there were two sides--a North and a South--to every story. His mother, Martha Bulloch, was a Southern belle who grew up on a plantation in Roswell, Georgia, while his father, Theodore Roosevelt Sr., was a philanthropic Northerner from one of New York's original aristocratic Dutch families. "Mittie," as Martha was called, and "Thee" adored each other and their four children: Anna ("Bamie"), Theodore (sometimes called "Teedie" in his youth, and later TR), Elliott, and Corinne. The family enjoyed a genteel existence in their five-story brownstone at 28 East Twentieth Street. Mittie, who always dressed in white, was considered one of the most beautiful women in the city, and Thee was so involved in his children's lives that they called him "Greatheart," after the hero in John Bunyan's allegory The Pilgrim's Progress. Money was plentiful--Thee's father owned a successful glass business--and his fortune enabled his sons to make fortunes of their own. The Roosevelt children were a smart, energetic, and good-natured bunch. They were educated at home by their mother's sister, Anna Bulloch, and fussed over by their grandmother Bulloch, who moved in with them after her husband died. Surrounded by doting relatives, they enjoyed a secure and privileged life, from the bountiful meals served in the family's parlor floor dining room, to the toys and comfortable beds that awaited them in their upstairs nursery. The children had a few complaints--the horsehair furniture in the parlor was prickly, they suffered the occasional punishment for misbehavior, and TR's recurring bouts of asthma sent the whole household into a panic, usually in the middle of the night. But, for the most part, the Roosevelts' familial universe was a tranquil one until 1861, when the outbreak of the Civil War created understandable tension in a household torn by divided loyalties. Mittie's brothers, James and Irvine Bulloch, were conscientious Southern gentlemen who eagerly enlisted in the Confederate Army, and Mittie, her mother, and her sister shared their enthusiasm for the cause. Thee, on the other hand, was a staunch supporter of Lincoln and the Union Army. Knowing that his wife was terrified that he and her brothers might come face-to-face on the battlefield, Thee paid a thousand dollars to a surrogate to fight in his place, a common practice at the time. Not that he shirked his wartime responsibilities. The ever-diligent Roosevelt was the architect of the country's first payroll savings program for soldiers, which enabled military men to put aside money for their families while they were off fighting the war. TR honored his Southern roots when he helped his mother surreptitiously send care packages to her relatives in Georgia. And he paid homage to his father when he theatrically prayed aloud for the Union Army to "grind the Southern troops to powder," something he did when he wanted to annoy his mother. Mittie and Thee maintained their relationship and their sense of humor, however, and managed to navigate these challenging wartime years. The Roosevelts set aside their conflicting loyalties to pay tribute to Abraham Lincoln on the occasion of his funeral. The entire city was in mourning, its businesses closed and its silent buildings swathed in black, with crowds lining the streets, jockeying for the best vantage points. Lincoln's hearse was drawn by sixteen gray horses and followed by a procession of fifty thousand mourners. The cortege was so big, and moved so slowly, that it took four hours to pass by the Roosevelts' window. The boys had the best view in town when the procession stopped in Union Square for a memorial service. There were speeches, prayers, and a reading of poet William Cullen Bryant's "Funeral Ode to Abraham Lincoln." Despite the record number of spectators, the city was eerily silent. " New York showed its grief at Lincoln's death amply and elegantly," praised the New York Times. There was one unfortunate backstage drama that almost spoiled the tribute. Inexplicably, the New York City planning committee refused to allow African Americans to march in the cortege, a shocking decision considering that Lincoln was responsible for freeing the slaves. If the dead man's horse could follow him, why not "the men for whom President Lincoln fought and worked, and died," incredulous members of the black community asked. Ultimately, it took an irate telegram from the secretary of war to resolve the issue. "It is the desire of the Secretary of War that no discrimination respecting color should be exercised in admitting persons to the funeral procession in New York tomorrow," snapped the official communiqué. Grieving blacks were permitted to join their white counterparts in the procession, where they could "drop a tear to the memory of their messiah and redeemer." A journalist covering the story noted sarcastically, "That ended the war of the races." Excerpted from Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation by Deborah Davis All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 1
The Big Housep. 7
Strive and Succeedp. 15
The Force That Winsp. 25
An Exemplary Young Gentlemanp. 37
Brick By Brickp. 43
Great Expectationsp. 49
Let Me Keep Lovingp. 56
Moving Upp. 63
Rough Ridingp. 73
Rising Starsp. 79
Jump Jim Crowp. 93
Pride And Prejudicep. 99
That Damned Cowboyp. 107
Best Behaviorp. 113
Lazy Daysp. 119
A Wild Ridep. 129
The People's Presidentp. 137
The Family Circusp. 147
Behind Closed Doorsp. 161
Fathers And Daughtersp. 171
Bold Movesp. 179
Dinner Is Servedp. 189
A Big Stinkp. 203
Sitting Ducksp. 219
Undercoverp. 233
Blindsidedp. 249
Slipping Awayp. 257
Eulogiesp. 265
Epiloguep. 273
Acknowledgmentsp. 275
Notesp. 277
Bibliographyp. 285
Indexp. 297