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A Rough Ride for Black America: The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt

Having captured Las Guasimas and San Juan Hill, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt was in one of those heady moods that had always characterized his favorite moments. In the flush of victory, he praised the black troops who fought alongside him as the mood of comradery overcame his always tenuous hold on his emotions. Writing John E. Bruce, Roosevelt wrote of the black Ninth and Tenth Cavalries: “I wish no better men beside me in battle than these colored troops showed themselves to be. Later on, when I come to write of the campaign, I shall have much to say about them.” Later, however, the future president’s tone and attitude toward the troops soured. Roosevelt described a scene of cowardice among black troopers as he “witnessed an extraordinary panic among the colored troopers” who had been ordered to dig a trench. In Roosevelt’s version of events, after he attempted to lead them back to dig the trench “the rearmost men grew nervous, jumped forward and in a few seconds the whole body broke and came in like so many stampeded buffaloes, racing and jumping over the trench.” This perceived turn of events fit neatly within the contours of Roosevelt’s racial views. Clearly, this was attributable to the incredible level of “superstition and fear” held by “darkies” only “a few generations removed from the wildest savagery.” An early 1899 magazine article by Roosevelt further angered African Americans across the nation as he described himself firing pistol to halt the flight of cowardly black troops.

Presley Holliday, who witnessed firsthand the events Roosevelt described, felt especially wounded by Roosevelt’s charges as they gave “the wrong impression of colored men as soldiers” recalling that Roosevelt’s own soldiers explained to them that the men were rushing to the rear in order to retrieve badly needed ammunition and medical supplies for the front. Roosevelt seemed to acknowledge his mistake the next day when he gave the impression of apologizing for drawing and firing his pistol mistakenly. Holliday’s deep wounds from Roosevelt’s allegations of cowardice demoralized him and tens of thousands of other African Americans, ever hopeful that the example of courageous and self-sacrificing black troops would advance the cause of equal rights within the United States. The collective lack of credibility and personal power on the part black troopers in contrast to Roosevelt’s individual rank, status and prestige made the situation all the more demoralizing for those most directly involved:

I could give many other incidents of our men’s devotion to duty, of their determination to stay until the death, but what’s the use? Colonel Roosevelt has said they shirked, and the reading public will take the Colonel at his word and go on thinking they shirked.

Following the United States intervention into Cuba during the Spanish American War, a conflict that had one its main objectives as the healing of the long-festering wounds of the Civil War, General Joe Wheeler, an ex-Confederate, lauded the performance of the black soldiers. Writing that their “unfaltering courage” led them to participate in the charge of the cavalry at Las Guasimas, Wheeler wrote that “under murderous fire” they “gained the crest of San Juan Hill and captured the formidable intrenchments of the Spaniards,” noting that the “reports of all their commanders unite in commending the Negro soldier,” and pointed to “their brave and good conduct, their obedience, efficiency and coolness under a galling fire.” The Rough Riders, after setting out for battle “in great glee,” confidently predicting victory, soon found that they were in the middle of an ambush. Not only were they trapped, but their mules had been shot, and several officers had been killed or wounded. The Tenth Cavalry’s entry into the battle, however, made the Spanish immediately retreat. Later, after Senator Nathan B. Scott praised the black troops and asserted that “if it had not been for the gallant and courageous action of the Tenth Regiment of Cavalry at the battle of San Juan we might not now have the privilege of having in the White House that brave soldier and ‘square deal’ and patriotic president of ours.” President Roosevelt then spoke out and denied that his Rough Riders had been saved by the black troopers.

In October 1901 President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington, perhaps the most prominent African American in the nation, to dine with him at the White House. Earlier Washington had invited the hyperkinetic Roosevelt to visit him at his school in Tuskegee, Alabama confident that his “self-help” programs and philosophy would impress the ambitious vice-president. That visit, however, was cancelled after McKinley succumbed to the gunshot wounds inflicted by an anarchist. Both Washington and Roosevelt realized that the meeting could result in negative publicity for their own agendas and the plan was to keep the meeting secret. However, the White House doorkeepers listed Washington as a guest of the president and news of the meeting leaked out. The politically naive move of breaking bread with Washington by the only recently-installed Roosevelt raised a firestorm of controversy among whites, north and south, despite his innocent intentions. While the national African American community saw hope and perhaps the potential for progress upon learning of President Roosevelt’s dining with the Tuskegee educator, reaction from those opposed to black progress was one of outrage and fear. Outrage from the apparent flouting of one of the most sacred tenets of the post-Civil War social order: that consuming food at the same table or even in the same facility under roughly the same circumstances represented “social equality,” a term that acquired the kind of connotative power that only “abolitionist” or “nigger lover” could equal in that era. The subordination of blacks under this order was to extend to all aspects of life, anything short of this left the door open to a “social equality” that would damage the harmonious relationships between the races and, according to the reigning logic, lead to the extermination of blacks.

Reacting to the uproar of criticism in the immediate aftermath of his dinner with Washington a defiant Roosevelt hit hard at his critics, commenting that the [T]he idiot or vicious Bourbon element of the South is crazy because I have had Booker T. Washington to dine. I shall have him to dine just as often as I please.“ Roosevelt’s posturing, however, belied the fact that he had no intention of challenging the Jim Crow system of segregation by his invitation to the educator. Indeed, Roosevelt had been supported by the “lily white” Republicans, who had purged African Americans from the ranks of their southern state parties, and by Democrats committed to white supremacy. In defense, the president stressed afterward that the females of the Roosevelt family did not sit down and dine with the black educator.

While the invitation to Booker T. Washington only one month into the new administration served to raise black hopes, the publicity resulting from the invitation revealed the depths of white opposition to “social equality.” One Memphis newspaper deplored the dinner as “the most damnable outrage that has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States.” The Richmond Times accused Roosevelt of favoring “that white women may receive attentions from negro men.”

In many respects the ascendancy of Booker T. Washington during the presidential administration of Theodore Roosevelt marks a low point in post-Civil War black relationships with American presidents. With a message to African Americans to ”[C]ast down your buckets where you are,” Washington became widely known after his historic September 18, 1895 speech at the opening of the Cotton States Exposition. He urged blacks to work for good, “friendly” relationships with the “southern white man,” who was the best ally of the recently enslaved people–an idea increasingly heard by those promoting sectional reconciliation. Almost three decades later, W. E. B. Du Bois, Washington’s major rival and critic, described the “deal” Washington negotiated for blacks: “Let politics alone, keep in your place, work hard, and do not complain.”

Despite Washington’s enthusiasm for the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt, the scourge of anti-black lynching continued. Turning to the question of lynching, for example, his comments only angered and distressed black Americans more. In a August 1903 letter, he mildly chided those who participated in lynch mobs and explained that the black man “in a certain proportion” of the cases was “guilty of a crime horrible beyond description; a crime so horrible that . . . he has forfeited the right to any kind of sympathy whatsoever.” Roosevelt maintained that “the criminal not merely sins against humanity in inexpiable and unpardonable fashion, but sins particularly against his own race,” a favorite theme when he addressed African American audiences.

Speaking to a gathering at the annual Lincoln Day dinner in New York in February 1905, Roosevelt acknowledged the necessity of extending fairness and equal justice to men of all races before shifting to the theme of the black responsibility for their own condition. “Every vicious, venal, or ignorant colored man is an even greater foe to his own race than to the community as a whole.” Roosevelt advocated an immediate end to illegal, unsanctioned lynching and their replacement by “swift vengeance” through legal means.

The Early Life of Theodore Roosevelt

Born in Manhattan October 27, 1858 into one of the most prominent of the Dutch Knickerbocker families in New York City, his mother was descended from the the Revolutionary Era Georgia Governor Bulloch. The slaveholding Bullochs settled on what had been Cherokee land and, soon prospered. Theodore Roosevelt’s father “Thee” met his mother “Mittie” when he visited Bulloch Hall in 1850.

Socialized into a variety of “muscular Christianity,” young Theodore was regaled with stories from the Antebellum South, many depicting slavery, and others recounting the valor and bravery of the soldiers of the Confederacy. While Roosevelt is reported to have tired quickly of the stories of slavery abhorring the clear injustice and cruelty of the system, he was thrilled to learn of the military exploits of his southern kin. Although “Thee” was a strong and prominent supporter of President Abraham Lincoln and, having purchased a substitute for himself to serve in the Civil War, the daring men described by his mother left him a lifetime taste for both war and wartime adventure.

Theodore Roosevelt felt deep emotional bonds with the defeated Confederacy and accepted, like others of the era, many of the racial attitudes that informed their actions. While his father was a friend of Lincoln, his mother’s father was intimate with Alexander H. Stephens, the Vice-President of the Confederacy who famously pronounced slavery as the basis of the union of the rebel states.

The key to Roosevelt’s personality was his boundless energy that was expended in a broad variety of endeavors. His accomplishments in several areas remain unique among America’s presidents and he left an indelible mark on his own era. His own self-development, physically, emotionally and intellectually, was so inspirational that it was widely emulated in his own time. His own example of “strenuous masculinity” impacted millions of individual Americans and was merged with a national attitude that facilitated the growth of an aggressive variety of nationalism.

Theodore Roosevelt’s rapid rise to the top level of national leadership was fueled by his own ambition and daring. Taking advantage of his own precocity and his family’s prominence he fought off personal tragedy—his wife and mother died so closely together they had a double funeral—to quickly become one of the most prominent politicians in the city. Quickly becoming seasoned as a politician Roosevelt carefully tailored his message to his constituency. While campaigning for governor of New York in black areas he would praise the African American troops who fought alongside him in Cuba declaring, “They can drink out of my canteen.” Yet, more than a few remembered his negative remarks on the performance of the soldiers that black communities took so much pride in. As Governor, Roosevelt consulted with T. Thomas Fortune and supported a landmark anti-segregation bill for the state’s public schools.

©Christopher Brian Booker, 2014.


President Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President

September 14, 1901 to March 4, 1909

Birth: October 27, 1858, New York, New York

Death: January 6, 1919

Education: Harvard, Columbia Law School

Religion: Dutch Reformed

Profession: Politician

Political Party: Republican, Progressive

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: Politician

Important Online Works

Life Portrait of Theodore Roosevelt Sep 3, 1999CSPAN



Later, President Roosevelt won the favor of Black America with his dinner with Booker T. Washington. While the dinner meant political trouble for the president, permanently impairing Roosevelt’s relationship with the white South, for Washington, the infamous meal solidified his status as the most prominent black leader in the nation. The more militant black nationalist pioneer Bishop Henry McNeal Turner applauded Washington for the bravery involved in going to the White House. He wrote Washington, “You are about to be the great representative and hero of the Negro race, not withstanding you have been very conservative. I thank you, thank you, thank you.” Other leaders and organizations took a wait-and-see attitude, interested both in the immediate results of the Washington policy as well as the long-term consequences.

Reeling from the public relations disaster of inviting Washington to dine with him at the White House, Roosevelt heard a rumor that a film had been produced highlighting the relationship between him and the black educator prompting him to dispatch a band of Secret Service agents to track it down. Finding it, they burned it leading a number of black newspapers to criticism the president’s attempt to suppress the film. Booker T. Washington’s relationship with President Roosevelt, and his successor, President Taft, however, became the principal manifestation of accommodationism at the national level. By placing the stamp of legitimacy on the denial of political representation for African Americans at the levels of local, state, and federal executive, legislative, and judicial branches, anti-democratic forces were strengthened. African American disfranchisement facilitated by Washington’s accommodationism resulted in the de facto white selection of black political representatives. Disfranchisement sealed the Jim Crow social arrangements putting an official stamp of approval on the notion of black inferiority. The unconstitutionality of black disfranchisement was ignored as Washington advised young men to steer clear from involvement in “mere political activity.”

Washington’s politics represented the surrender of the black vote and legitimate political power during a period when only males had the franchise. Educator Kelly Miller summed up his view of the differences in leadership style and content between Washington and Frederick Douglass, who died in 1895, the same year Washington’s star rose. Miller compared Douglass to a “lion,” “bold and fearless,” whereas Washington was “lamblike, meek, and submissive.” While Douglass “held up to public scorn the sins of the white race,” Washington focused on the “faults of his own race.”

The White House dinner gave Booker T. Washington credibility which was soon buttressed by his influence over a small portion of Republican patronage. For better or worse, Washington’s influence was magnified by the ongoing reality of black disfranchisement in the South. The official status given to Washington and the cementing of the complete repression of black political life were part and parcel of an anti-democratic “Gentlemen’s Agreement.” Even in the North the black vote was subject to suppression and manipulation by means of various devices including the giving of “walking money” to black ministers to control the vote.

The stunted remains of the Republican presence in the South featured largely black political organizations. The “Party of Lincoln,” however, was subject to consistent pressures for the removal of blacks from the Republican Party. Already excluded from a Democratic Party which was aimed squarely to maintain black disfranchisement and exclusion from the region’s social, economic, and political life, African Americans were forced to fight to remain in the southern Republican Party. In this effort, Theodore Roosevelt stood opposed to them. Cecil Lyon, leader of the Lily White Republicans in Texas and an ex-Rough Rider, linked Roosevelt directly with his effort to oust blacks from the party. Despite Washington's efforts to get Roosevelt to appoint a black man as a repudiation of the Lily White policy of black exclusion, Roosevelt refused to do so without approval from the Lily Whites.

Contemporary mainstream writers reasoned that there were few suitable Republican appointees from the South since only degraded white carpetbaggers were available for appointment to political offices. This reality, according to this logic, forced Roosevelt to appoint a few white southern Democrats to top posts. The few blacks Roosevelt appointed were regarded as evidence of his fairness and generosity despite the fact that these were far below the black percentage of the electorate, and more importantly, percentage of Republican support.

By the end of the nineteenth century William Monroe Trotter and a wider circle of middle class Boston blacks began to openly attack Washingtonianism. With Washington opposing the Lodge Federal Elections bill—essential for any semblance of freedom of blacks to vote in the South—Trotter criticized Washington’s meekness, complaining that Washington’s “attitude has ever been one of servility.” Yet, by the mid-1890s many blacks had concluded self-defense was necessary for themselves, their families and their communities. In contrast to Washington’s passive public posture, Ida B. Wells carried a gun herself and advised other African Americans to do likewise. Her wisdom that a “Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give” was a lesson she and others had learned from some three decades of Emancipation.

When Washington spoke at a Boston church in 1903 under the aegis of his National Negro Business League Trotter had a prepared list of nine challenging questions to deliver. During the chaos of what became known as the “Boston Riot,” before being arrested with his sister, Trotter reeled off a few of them. Among Trotter’s questions were “When you said: ‘It was not so important whether the Negro was in the inferior car as whether there was in that car a superior man not a beast,’ did you not minimize the outrage of the insulting Jim-crow car discrimination and justify it by the ‘bestiality’ of the Negro?”

The Brownsville Affair deepened the divide between President Theodore Roosevelt and the national black community. The August 13, 1906 shooting that took the life of a bartender mushroomed into an event of national significance after Roosevelt dismissed all of the black troops of three companies, B, C, and D of the First Battalion of the U.S. Infantry. This followed a concerted campaign by the white citizens of the town, organized into a “Citizen’s Committee.” They telegraphed President Roosevelt writing that the presence of black troops “terrorized” “our women and children.” Roosevelt’s chief investigator, Major August P. Blocksom, citing an increased black aggressiveness on issues of “social equality,” recommended the wholesale dismissal of the battalion if the guilty men among them were not soon identified. President Roosevelt, elected with overwhelming African American support, heartily agreed. American anger at President Roosevelt over his Brownsville actions was soon reflected in the columns of black newspapers, in the pulpits of the black church, and in daily conversations.

The most important aspect, however, of the Washington-Roosevelt relationship in its impact upon black political life was its repressive thrust. Washington pointed the finger at George Cortelyou who worked at the U. S. Post Office. He informed the Roosevelt administration that Cortelyou was “more responsible than all the others put together for stirring up trouble against the administration on the Brownsville affair.” Utilizing direct contributions of cash Booker T. Washington, and through him, President Theodore Roosevelt, exerted influence upon the black press. Payments for advertisements, new releases, and subsidies were used to influence, slant, spin and censure the black press. Journals such as The Boston Colored Citizen, Alexander’s Magazine, and The Colored American were supported financially by Washington. Despite this flurry of “counter insurgency” measures, African American newspapers continued to attack Roosevelt.

After the Roosevelt-led National Progressive party was organized its 1912 convention in Chicago committed the party to reforms intended to ease humanity’s burden. During a Milwaukee campaign speech in October 1912 Roosevelt was shot by a “fanatic” but nevertheless continuing speaking remarking, “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose.” Roosevelt’s heartiness at that time was undeniable but his legendary spirit and energy continued to be applied to efforts diametrically opposed African American interests. The overall package of “Moosevelt” reforms failed to include any progressive measures aiding African Americans. Quite the opposite, the “Moosevelts” excluded blacks from the new political party. In addition, the third party’s commitment to “states’ rights” proved so popular among southern whites that Roosevelt came in second place in eight of the eleven former states of the Confederacy, better than he fared in the nation as a whole.

For African Americans, the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt shattered many of the illusions contemporary African Americans harbored concerning the Republican Party. Yet, where could they go? The Democratic Party remained the party of their avowed enemies, and third party formations remained unlikely contenders for real political power. Their interests all but officially abandoned by the Republican Party, African Americans were locked out of the two-party political system. As a result, the American racial order was as stable as it had been since the slave system of the 1840s existed. The disillusionment with the policies of the Roosevelt administration and with the designated leader, Booker T. Washington refusing to adopt positions independent or critical of it, especially during the Brownsville controversy, led to the emergence of the Niagara Movement, and later the National Association for the Advancement of the Negro (NAACP).