A Step Back For Blacks

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Theodore Roosevelt once lamented, "there is not any more puzzling problem in this country than the problem of color." More puzzling to us now are his conflicted views on race. On the one hand, he could write that "the only wise and honorable and Christian thing to do is to treat each black man and each white man strictly on his merits as a man." But as was common among whites at the time, his opinion of blacks as a group was rather dim. "As a race, and in the mass," he wrote in a letter in 1906, "they are altogether inferior to the whites."

Two key incidents of Roosevelt's presidency represent his disappointing legacy on race. The first was his invitation to black educator Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House—an act of political courage at the time. Washington, a former slave and the founder of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, was, in Roosevelt's view, "the most useful, as well as the most distinguished, member of his race in the world." On the first day of his presidency, Roosevelt sent a note to Washington inviting him to the White House to discuss suitable candidates for patronage appointments in the South. On Oct. 16, 1901, Washington dined with the President, Roosevelt's wife Edith and a family friend, then left town on a midnight train. No sooner did news of the meal became public than the firestorm began. Accused of promoting "social equality," which some feared would encourage intermarriage of white women and black men, Roosevelt was widely villainized. In particular, the thought of race mixing at the highest levels made white Southerners apoplectic. Newspaper headlines roared Roosevelt Dines A Darkey and Our Coon-Flavored President. South Carolina Senator Ben Tillman said, "The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again."

As Roosevelt privately expressed his "melancholy" over the South's "violent chronic hysteria," blacks looked upon Roosevelt as a savior and anointed Washington as their hero. The President vowed to invite Washington to dine "just as often as I please." But although Roosevelt consulted Washington throughout his presidency, neither the Tuskegee chief, nor any other black person, ever supped at the White House with Roosevelt again.

Five years later, Roosevelt was involved in another racially charged incident, and in this one his behavior offered less to admire. On Aug. 13, 1906, a dozen or so gunmen went on a 10-minute shooting spree in the small town of Brownsville, Texas. They left a saloon bartender dead and a police officer seriously injured. Townspeople reported that the attackers were soldiers from the all-black 25th Infantry Regiment, who had been stationed just a few weeks earlier at nearby Fort Brown. Tensions between the soldiers and the white citizenry had been brewing since the day the troops arrived.

An Army investigation eventually concluded that the soldiers were guilty. Townspeople produced shell casings, which they claimed to have found on the street, of the same kind used in the soldiers' new Springfield rifles. A number of eyewitnesses also claimed to have seen black soldiers in uniform on the streets during the shooting. But no evidence could link anyone to the incident, and subsequent investigations revealed the eyewitnesses to be unreliable—a nearly blind man claimed to have seen soldiers 150 ft. away on the moonless night—and heavily biased. "Citizens of Brownsville entertain race hatred to an extreme degree," said Major General F.C. Ainsworth, the Army commander in Texas at the time.

Even the investigators charged with looking into the matter were openly biased. When asked under oath, "Do you believe colored people, generally, are truthful?" Army Inspector General Ernest Garlington replied, "I do not." When no soldiers confessed, he called it a "conspiracy of silence." The President agreed, and with no trial ordered on Nov. 5 that 167 of the soldiers be discharged without honor, pension or benefits. "Some of those men were bloody butchers," he later remarked. "They ought to be hung."

Criticized as an "executive lynching," and a "despotic usurpation of power," the decision was widely unpopular among blacks and Northern whites. Even Roosevelt’s ally Washington, who as a rule never spoke publicly against the president, opposed him. "Brownsville was an unforgettable shock. It erased any illusions about Roosevelt’s benevolence created by the dinner at the White House," noted historian Louis Harlan in his 1983 biography of Washington. Roosevelt chafed at accusations that he dismissed the men because they were black and insisted that his decision was based solely on his "convictions." The Richmond Planet, a black newspaper, observed: "President Roosevelt may like Colored folks, but he has a devilish mean way of showing it."

The soldiers found a white ally in Ohio Senator Joseph Foraker, who managed to gather enough evidence of a flawed investigation to reopen the case in 1908, when he famously told the Senate, "They ask no favors because they are Negroes, but only for justice because they are men." The troops' white commander, Major Charles Penrose, testified before the Senate Military Affairs Committee that, "my men had nothing whatever to do with it." But despite ample evidence of paid witnesses and biased investigators, a court of inquiry, consisting of five generals, concluded on April 6, 1910 that the soldiers were indeed guilty.

Forgotten for decades, the Brownsville affair got a fresh airing in 1972 with the publication of The Brownsville Raid by John Weaver, which revealed how even the telltale shell casings were probably planted on the streets as part of a frame-up. On Sept. 28, 1972, the Army announced that the soldiers would finally be granted an honorable discharge. Only one was still alive by then. Dorsie Willis, a former private, had spent some 60 years shining shoes in a Minneapolis bank building. When the arthritic 88-year-old received $25,000 in back pay in 1974, he told reporters, "You can't pay for a lifetime."

So which was the real Roosevelt: the man who sat down to dinner with Washington or the one who ordered the hasty discharge of the soldiers? Historians would say both. The boisterous, cocksure President was a man of strong convictions on many things. But on questions of race, he spent a lifetime feeling his way.