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Book Review: Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation by Deborah Davis

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Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation by Deborah Davis is a non-fiction book which tells of the events leading and resulting of a simple dinner in which President Theodore Roosevelt dined with Book T. Washington.

In 1901 the country woke up to a shock: the previous day, on October 16, President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to have dinner at the executive mansion (known today as the White House) with the First Family. Not only black, but a former slave, Washington’s invitation created fodder for news papers, vile cartoons and vulgar songs.

While Guest of Honor seems to be only about a dinner, it is actually much more. This well researched book touches on politics of the era as well as the fragile and difficult race relations after the American Civil War.

The book extensively goes into the events that shaped the breakthrough meal, starting with the end of the Civil War and short biographies of the two main players. It was striking to see how parallel the lives of two men, each at one end of the social spectrum (an ex-slave and a privileged white) were eerily similar. Both men, close at age, got married at approximately the same time, had kids at around the same time and suffer devastating losses.

Guest of Honor is well written, well researched and easy to read history. While the book captures a moment in history, most of the narrative concentrates on the events before it and why such a gesture created a huge splash. The contradictions between the impulsive Roosevelt and the cautious Washington are highlighted, but also how they complemented each other and why they needed one another.

Abraham Lincoln, America’s 16th President, is always in the background of this book. Both men admired Mr. Lincoln, his contributions, guts, political savvy, and skill. While Mr. Lincoln is not in this book, as a person, his shadow is on almost every page.

One of the amazing things I learned from this book, is that Roosevelt used Washington as a political advisor, not by name but by actions. The two men corresponded lengthily and the President implemented the advice Mr. Washington gave him about political appointments and the such.

The dinner on October 16, 1901 went smoothly. Mr. Washington came in the evening and the whole historical event almost went unnoticed. Once word was out, the South erupted in intellectual and physical violence. A line had been crossed as the implication of an invitation to dinner had much more meaning than today’s. Not only did whites admonish the event, but African-Americans as well. The notable W.E.B. Du Bois, also criticized saying the dinner created back relations which he abhorred.

I never heard of this dinner and I wouldn’t be surprised if many others didn’t as well. Ms. Davis mentions that she didn’t know about this inciting event either until Senator John McCain (R-AZ) mentioned it in his 2008 Presidential election concession speech: “A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt’s invitation of Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage in many quarters.

America today is a world away from the cruel and frightful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States.

 

Buy Guest of Honor in paper or electronic (Kindle) format

Related Reads:
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Dark­est Jour­ney by Can­dice Mil­lard

  • 320 pages
  • Publisher: Atria Books
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439169810
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