What you see: A 1903 print commemorating Theodore Roosevelt dining with Booker T. Washington at the White House two years earlier. Heritage Auctions estimates it could sell for $2,000 or more.
The expert: Curtis Lindner, associate director of Americana at Heritage Auctions.
How did the dinner come about? Why did it make sense for President Theodore Roosevelt to invite Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House in 1901? Roosevelt was not the first president to invite African-Americans to the White House, but Booker T. Washington was the first to be invited to dine at the White House. Washington was an advisor to Roosevelt.
What did Booker T. Washington advise President Theodore Roosevelt on? He advised him on horrible things happening to African-Americans, and wanted to get them more rights. That was a reason to invite him to dinner–to discuss voting rights in the South. Roosevelt probably had it in his mind that he wanted to run for president in 1905. Having Washington talk about voting for Roosevelt was very important. He was also a good friend of Roosevelt as well.
When did the two men become friends? Probably when Roosevelt was vice president. And when Roosevelt was governor of New York, he had invited African-Americans to the governor’s mansion, and had invited them to stay overnight. That didn’t become national news because he was a governor. When he did it as president, there was an uproar in the South. There are graphic quotes. The n-word was used extensively. Horrible things were said [along the lines of]–‘How dare he defame the White House by inviting him to dinner,’ and ‘How dare he dine with Roosevelt’s wife and white children.’ [Roosevelt had three sons and a daughter at the time.]
Was the uproar in all of the South? A majority. U.S. Senators and Congressmen made these comments. It seemed to be acceptable at the time.
How did the Northern states react? A lot of Northerners did support it. It was primarily the South, and a lot of Southern politicians, that didn’t like it at all.
Did the White House announce the dinner before it happened, or after? The White House announced it, from what I understand, after the dinner. Washington was up there for some sort of conference, and Roosevelt sent him a telegram inviting him to the White House. I don’t know if Roosevelt expected an uproar.
It sounds like it was spontaneous. Yes, it was more of a spontaneous thing. It was not fancy. It was just Booker T. Washington and Roosevelt’s family. And there were other people there–servants coming through as well. This is a “pro” print. It’s in support of the Roosevelt-Washington dinner. There are “con” buttons that depict Washington in caricature, and with bottles of liquor on the table, as if they were getting drunk. Those can sell for several hundred dollars, as well as the “pro”. There are also two versions of the “pro” print–one where the tablecloth says “Equality”, and one where it doesn’t. Both have the image of Lincoln between Roosevelt and Washington.
Yes, now that I look more closely at the print, there’s no hint of alcohol. No glasses are on the table, and maybe that’s a water carafe in the foreground? Absolutely. The “con” image is different from the “pro” buttons and the “pro” print. Washington has larger, curlier hair, and there’s no Lincoln between them. The juxtaposition is so interesting between the “con” image and the “pro” print.
The lot notes describe the dinner as a “public relations mistake Roosevelt never repeated.” What made the dinner a public relations mistake? After the uproar, the White House backpedaled a little, claiming it was a lunch. It was at 8 pm at night. It was not a lunch. The White House [might have said to Roosevelt] ‘We have a perception problem, Mister President.’ It was bad publicity for the president and the government in the eyes of many, especially in the South. I’m sure it took some time for this to go away. And Roosevelt never invited another African-American to dine at the White House. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have them over to visit, but there were no dinners or lunches. He probably didn’t want to deal with more controversy.
The dinner took place in 1901, but the print is dated 1903. What accounts for the two-year lag between the event and the publication of the print? I don’t have a definitive answer. What comes to mind is in late 1903 and early 1904, Roosevelt started running for president. Could he be trying to look good to the African-American population? On the other hand, would he want to remind the white American South about how mad they were when an African-American was in the White House? I don’t have a definitive answer. I could see how [a printer] would put it out a month after the dinner, but why two years after? Why wait those two years?
Well, in the middle of the 20th century, a lot of Irish Catholic homes displayed a photograph of President John F. Kennedy alongside the Pope. Could this print of President Theodore Roosevelt dining with Booker T. Washington have served the same sort of cultural role in African-American homes? That’s a good point. That could very well be why.
So, who would have been the audience for this print? Middle-class African-Americans? I would think it would be more for the African-American community. It’s a very flattering print of two brilliant men sitting down to eat. It was probably a coveted print that hung in a home next to a print of Abraham Lincoln.
Did you find any evidence that this could have been printed by a press that also offered an African-American newspaper? I could not find any information about that.
Is it possible that the Republican Party, or a local Republican group, might have commissioned the print to support Roosevelt’s 1905 campaign? I don’t think so at all.
And I take it this is a fanciful rendering of the dinner? There probably wasn’t a print of Abraham Lincoln hanging in the room where they ate? We do not know if there was an image of Lincoln in the room, but it was smart for the artist to add it. I’m sure he put it there with a lot of thought behind it. But there’s no actual photo or drawing of them having dinner. There was no White House photographer then. The images of Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington’s faces were used in other memorabilia. What you see is an artist’s rendition of what the dinner might have been like.
Yeah, the faces of the men look like they were lifted from two different photographs. Exactly. They [the artist or the printer] found other images and used the faces for this purpose.
It’s odd that Roosevelt and Washington aren’t looking at each other. It is strange. The artist could have had them looking at each other. Why he didn’t, I don’t know.
What condition is the print in? There’s some damage to it, some edge roughness, but this is overall a good example. The majority of examples have some condition issues–the print is 116 years old, and it’s ephemeral by nature.
Do we have any notion of how many of these prints were made, and how many survive? We’ve sold four examples, the highest for $5,250 in June 2018. I’ve probably seen 15 to 20 examples. I’m sure it was made in some quantity.
Why will this print stick in your memory? To me, I think, it shows we can look past our differences. Roosevelt was a great man who saw he could take advice from African-Americans and treat them equally. This print makes me think we have a chance in thus country to all get along.
How to bid: The 1903 print of Theodore Roosevelt dining with Booker T. Washington in the White House is lot #43316 in The David and Janice Frent Collection, Presidential and Political Americana, Part VI auction, taking place at Heritage Auctions on September 21 – 22, 2019.
Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
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