Table of Contents
My Larger Education by Booker T. Washington
Chapter 7 Colonel Roosevelt and What I Have Learned From Him
Some years ago, and not so very many, either I think that I should have been perfectly safe in saying that the highest ambition of the average Negro in America was to hold some sort of office, or to have some sort of job that connected him with the Government. Just to be able to live in the capital city was a sort of distinction, and the man who ran an elevator or merely washed windows in Washington (particularly if the windows or the elevator belonged to the United States Government) felt that he was in some way superior to a man who cleaned windows or ran an elevator in any other part of the country. He felt that he was an office holder!
There has been a great change in this respect in recent years. Many members of my race have learned that, in the long run, they can earn more money and be of more service to the community in almost any other position than that of an employee or office holder under the Government. I know of a number of recent cases in which Negro business men have refused positions of honor and trust in the Government service because they did not care to give up their business interests. Notwithstanding, the city of Washington still has a peculiar attraction and even fascination for the average Negro.
I do not think that I ever shared that feeling of so many others of my race. I never liked the atmosphere of Washington. I early saw that it was impossible to build up a race, of which the leaders were spending most of their time, thought and energy in trying to get into office, or in trying to stay there after they were in. So, for the greater part of my life, I have avoided Washington; and even now I rarely spend a day in that city which I do not look upon as a day practically thrown away.
I do not like politics, and yet, in recent years, I have had some experience in political matters. However, no man who is in the least interested in public questions can escape some sort of connection with politics, I suppose, even if he does not want a political position. As a matter of fact, it was just because it was well known that I sought no political office of any kind and would accept no position with the Government, unless it were an honorary one, that brought my connection with politics about.
One thing that has taught me to dislike politics is the observation that, as soon as any person or thing becomes the subject of political discussion he or it at once assumes in the public mind an importance out of all proportion to his or its real merits. Time and time again I have seen a whole community (sometimes a whole county or state) wrought up to the highest pitch of excitement over the appointment of some person to a political position paying perhaps not more than $25 or $50 a month. At the same time I have seen individuals secure important positions at the head of a manufacturing house or receive an appointment to some important educational position that paid three or four times as much money (or perhaps purchase a farm), where just as much executive ability was required, without arousing public attention or causing comment in the newspapers. I have also seen white men and colored men resign important positions in private life where they were earning much more than they could get under the Government, simply because of the false and mistaken ideas of the importance which they attached to a political position. All this has given me distaste for political life.
In Mississippi, for example, a colored man and his wife had charge, a few years ago, of a post office. In some way or other a great discussion was started in regard to this case, and before long the whole community was in a state of excitement because colored people held that position. A little later the post office was given up and the colored man, Mr. W. W. Cox, started a bank in the same town. At the present time he is the president of the bank and his wife assists him. As bankers they receive three or four times as much pay as they received from the post office. The bank is patronized by both white and colored people and, when last I heard of it, was in a flourishing condition. As president of a Negro bank, Mr. Cox is performing a much greater service to the community than he could possibly render as postmaster. There are, no doubt, a great many people in his town who would be able to fill the position of postmaster, but there are very few who could start and successfully carry on an institution that would so benefit the community as a Negro bank. While he was postmaster, merely because his office was a political one, Mr. Cox occupied for some time the attention of the whole state of Mississippi; in fact, he (or rather his wife) was for a brief space almost a national figure. Now he is occupying a much more remunerative and important position in private life, but I do not think that he has attracted attention to amount to anything outside of the community in which he lives.
The effect of the excitement about this case has been greatly to exaggerate the importance of holding a Government position. The average Negro naturally feels that there must be some special value to him as an individual, as well as to his race, in holding a position which white people don't want him to hold, simply because he is a Negro. It leads him to believe that it is in some way more honorable or respectable to work for the Government as an official than for the community and himself as a private citizen.
Because of these facts, as well as for other reasons, I have never sought nor accepted a political position. During President Roosevelt's administration I was asked to go as a Commissioner of the United Sates to Liberia. In considering whether I should accept this position, it was urged that, because of the work that I had already done in this country for my own people and because my name was already known to some extent to the people of Liberia, I was the person best fitted to undertake the work that the Government wanted done. While I did not like the job and could ill spare the time from the work which I was trying to do for the people of my own race in America, I finally decided to accept the position. I was very happy, however, when President Taft kindly decided to' relieve me from the necessity of making the trip and allowed my secretary, Mr. Emmett J. Scott, to go to Africa in my stead. This was as near as I ever came to holding a Government job. But there are other ways of getting into politics than by holding office.
In the case of the average man, it has seemed to me that as soon as he gets into office he becomes an entirely different man. Some men change for the better under the weight of responsibility; others change for the worse. I never could understand what there is in American politics that so fatally alters the character of a man. I have known men who, in their private life and in their business, were scrupulously careful to keep their word, men who would never, directly or indirectly, deceive anyone with whom they were associated. When they took political office all this changed. I once asked a colored hack driver in Washington how a certain colored man whom I had known in private life (but who was holding a prominent office) was getting on. The old driver had little education but he was a judge of men, and he summed up the case in this way:
"Dere is one thing about Mr. --; you can always depend on him." The old fellow shook his head and laughed. Then he added: "If he tells you he's gwine to do anything, you can always depend upon it that he's not gwine to do it."
This sort of change that comes over people after they get office is not confined, however, to the Negro race. Other races seem to suffer in the same way. I have seen men who, in the ordinary affairs of life, were cool and level headed, grow suspicious and jealous, give up interest in everything, neglect their business, sometimes even neglect their families; in short, lose entirely their mental and moral balance as soon as they started out in quest of an office.
I have watched these men after the political microbe attacked them, and I know all the symptoms of the disease that follows. They usually begin by carefully studying the daily newspapers. They attach great importance to the slightest thing that is said (or not said) by persons who they believe have political influence or authority. These men (the men who dispense the offices) soon come to assume an enormous importance in the minds of office seekers. They watch all the movements of the political leaders with the greatest anxiety, and study every chance word that they let drop, as if it had some dark and awful significance. Then, when they get a little farther along, the office seekers will, perhaps, be found tramping the streets, getting signatures of Tom, Dick, and Harry as a guarantee that they are best qualified to fill some office that they have in view.
I remember the case of a white man who lived in Alabama when President McKinley was first elected. This man gave up his business and went to Washington with a full determination to secure a place in the President's cabinet. He wrote me regularly concerning his prospects. After President McKinley had filled all the places in his cabinet, the same individual applied for a foreign ambassadorship; failing in that, he applied for an auditorship in one of the departments; failing in that, he tried to get a clerkship in Washington; failing in that, he finally wrote to me (and to a number of other acquaintances in Alabama) and asked me to lend him enough money to defray his traveling expenses back to Alabama.
Of course, not all men who go into politics are affected in the way that I have described. Let me add that I have known many public men and have studied them carefully, but the best and highest example of a man that was the same in political office that he was in private life is Col. Theodore Roosevelt. He is not the only example, but he is the most conspicuous one in this respect that I have ever known.
I was thrown, comparatively early in my career, in contact with Colonel Roosevelt. He was just the sort of man to whom anyone who was trying to do work of any kind for the improvement of any race or type of humanity would naturally go to for advice and help. I have seen him and been in close contact with him under many varying circumstances and I confess that I have learned much from studying his career, both while he was in office and since he has been in private life. One thing that impresses me about Mr. Roosevelt is that I have never known him, having given a promise, to overlook or forget it; in fact, he seems to forget nothing, not even the most trivial incidents.
I found him the same when he was President that he was as a private citizen, or as Governor of New York, or as Vice-President of the United States. In fact, I have no hesitation in saying that I consider him the highest type of all-round man that I have ever met.
One of the most striking things about Mr. Roosevelt, both in private and public life is his frankness. I have been often amazed at the absolute directness and candor of his speech. He does not seem to know how to hide anything. In fact, he seems to think aloud. Many people have referred to him as being impulsive and as acting without due consideration. From what I have seen of Mr. Roosevelt in this regard, I have reached the conclusion that what people describe as impulsiveness in him is nothing else but quickness of thought. While other people are thinking around a question, he thinks through it. He reaches his conclusions while other people are considering the preliminaries. He cuts across the field, as it were, in his methods of thinking. It is true that in doing so he often takes great chances and risks much. But Colonel Roosevelt is a man who never shrinks from taking chances when it is necessary to take them. I remember that, on one occasion, when it seemed to me that he had risked a great deal in pursuing a certain line of action; I suggested to him that it seemed to me that he had taken a great chance.
"One never wins a battle," he replied, "Unless he takes some risks."
Another characteristic of Colonel Roosevelt, as compared with many other prominent men in public life, is that he rarely forgets or forsakes a friend. If a man once wins his confidence, he stands by that man. One always knows where to find him, and that, in my opinion, accounts to a large degree for his immense popularity. His friend, particularly if he happens to be holding a public position, may become very unpopular with the public, but unless that friend has disgraced himself, Mr. Roosevelt will always stand by him, and is not afraid or ashamed to do so. In the long run the world respects a man who has the courage to stand by his friends, whether in public or private life, and Mr. Roosevelt has frequently gained popularity by doing things that more discreet politicians would have been afraid to do.
I first became acquainted with Mr. Roosevelt through correspondence. Later, in one of my talks with him, and this was at a time when there seemed little chance of his ever becoming President, for it was before he had even been mentioned for that position-he stated to me in the frankest manner that some day he would like to be President of the United States. The average man, under such circumstances, would not have thought aloud. If he believed that there was a remote opportunity of gaining the Presidency, he would have said that he was not seeking the office; that his friends were thrusting it on him; that he did not have the ability to be President, and so forth. Not so with Colonel Roosevelt. He spoke out, as is his custom, that which was in his mind. Even then, many years before he attained his ambition, he began to outline to me how he wanted to help not only the Negro, but the whole South, should he ever become President. I question whether any man ever went into the Presidency with a more sincere desire to be of real service to the South than Mr. Roosevelt did.
That incident will indicate one of the reasons why Mr. Roosevelt succeeds. He not only thinks quickly, but he plans and thinks a long distance ahead. If he had an important state paper to write, or an important magazine article or speech to prepare, I have known him to prepare it six or eight months ahead. The result is that he is at all times master of himself and of his surroundings. He does not let his work push him; he pushes his work.
Practically everything that he tried to do for the South while he was President was outlined in conversations to me many years before it became known to most people that he had the slightest chance of becoming President. What he did was not a matter of impulse but the result of carefully matured plans.
An incident which occurred immediately after he became President will illustrate the way in which Mr. Roosevelt's mind works upon a public problem. After the death of President McKinley I received a letter from him, written in his own hand, on the very day that he took the oath of office at Buffalo as President, or was it the day fo11owing, in which he asked me to meet him in Washington. He wanted to talk over with me the plans for helping the South that we had discussed years before. This plan had lain matured in his mind for months and years and, as soon as the opportunity came, he acted upon it.
When I received this letter from Mr. Roosevelt, asking me to meet him in Washington, I confess that it caused me some grave misgivings. I felt that I must consider seriously the question whether I should allow myself to be drawn into a kind of activity that I had definitely determined to keep away from. But here was a letter which, it seemed to me, I could not lightly put aside, no matter what my personal wishes or feelings might be. Shortly after Mr. Roosevelt became established in the White House I went there to see him and we spent the greater part of an evening in talk concerning the South. In this conversation he emphasized two points in particular: First, he said that wherever he appointed a white man to office in the South he wished him to be the very highest type of native Southern white man, one in whom the whole country had faith. He repeated and emphasized his determination to appoint such a type of man regardless of political influences or political consequences.
Then he stated to me, quite frankly, that he did not propose to appoint a large number of colored people, to office in any part of the South, but that he did propose to do two things which had not been done before that time, at least not to the extent and with the definite purpose that he had in mind. Wherever he did appoint a colored man to office in the South, he said that he wanted him to be not only a man of ability, but of character, a man who had the confidence of his white and colored neighbors. He did not propose to appoint a colored man to office simply for the purpose of temporary political expediency. He added that, while he proposed to appoint fewer colored men to office in the South, he proposed to put a certain number of colored men of high character and ability in office in the Northern states. He said that he had never been able to see any good reason why colored men should be put in office in the Southern states and not in the North as well.
As a matter of fact, before Mr. Roosevelt became President, not a single colored man had ever been appointed, so far as I know, to a Federal office in any Northern state. Mr. Roosevelt determined to set the example by placing a colored man in a high office in his own home city, so that the country might see that he did not want other parts of the country to accept that which he himself was not willing to receive. Some months afterward, as a result of this policy, the Hon. Charles W Anderson was made collector of internal revenues for the second district of New York. This is the district in which Wall Street is located and the district that receives, perhaps, more revenue than any other in the United States. Later on, Mr. Roosevelt appointed other colored men to high office in the North and West, but I think that anyone who examines into the individual qualifications of the colored men appointed to office by Mr. Roosevelt will find, in each case, that they were what he insisted that they should be men of superior ability and of superior character.
President Taft happily has followed the same policy. He has appointed Whitefield McKinlay, of Washington, to the collectorship of the port of Georgetown, a position which has never heretofore been held by a black man. He had designated J. c. Napier, cashier of the One Cent Savings Bank of Nashville, Tenn., to serve as register of the United States treasury; and he has recently announced the appointment of William H. Lewis, assistant United States district attorney, Boston, Mass., to the highest appointive position ever held by a black man under the Federal Government, namely, to a place as assistant attorney general of the United States.
Back of their desire to improve the public service, Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Taft have had another purpose in appointing to office the kind of colored people that I have named. They have said that they desire the persons appointed by them to be men of the highest character in order that the younger generation of colored people might see that men of conspicuous ability and conspicuous purity of character are recognized in politics as in other walks of life. They have hoped that such recognition might lead other colored people to strive to attain a high reputation.
Mr. Roosevelt did not apply this rule to the appointments of colored people alone. He believed that he could not only greatly improve the public service, but to some extent could change the tone of politics in the South and improve the relations of the races by the appointment of men who stood high in their professions and who were not only friendly to the colored people but had the confidence of the white people as well. These men, he hoped, would be to the South a sort of model of what the Federal Government desired and expected of its officials in their relations with all parties.
During the first conference with Mr. Roosevelt in the White House, after discussing many matters, he finally agreed to appoint a certain white man, whose name had been discussed, to an important judicial position. Within a few days the appointment was made and accepted. I question whether any appointment made in the South has ever attracted more attention or created more favorable comment from people of all classes than was true of this one.
During the fall of 1901, while I was making a tour of Mississippi, I received word to the effect that the President would like to have a conference with me, as soon as it was convenient, concerning some important matters. With a friend, who was traveling with me, I discussed very seriously the question whether, with the responsibilities I already had, I should take on others. After considering the matter carefully, we decided that the only policy to pursue was to face the new responsibilities as they arose, because new responsibilities bring new opportunities for usefulness of which I ought to take advantage in the interest of my race. I was the more disposed to feel that this was a duty because Mr. Roosevelt was proposing to carry out the very policies which I had advocated ever since I began work in Alabama. Immediately after finishing my work in Mississippi I went to Washington. I arrived there in the afternoon and went to the house of a friend, Mr. Whitefield McKinlay, with whom I was expected to stop during my stay in Washington.
This trip to Washington brings me to a matter which I have hitherto constantly refused to discuss in print or in public, though I have had a great many requests to do so. At the time, I did not care to add fuel to the controversy which it aroused, and I speak of it now only because it seems to me that an explanation will show the incident in its true light and in its proper proportions.
When I reached Mr. McKinlay's house I found an invitation from President Roosevelt asking me to dine with him at the White House that evening at eight o'clock. At the hour appointed I went to the White House and dined with the President and members of his family and a gentleman from Colorado. After dinner we talked at considerable length concerning plans about the South which the President had in mind. I left the White House almost immediately and took a train the same night for New York. When I reached New York the next morning I noticed that the New York Tribune had about two lines stating that I had dined with the President the previous night. That was the only New York paper, so far as I saw, that mentioned the matter. Within a few hours the whole incident completely passed from my mind. I mentioned the matter casually, during the day, to a friend, Mr. William H. Baldwin, Jr., then president of the Long Island Railroad, but spoke of it to no one else and had no intention of doing so. There was, in fact, no reason why I should discuss it or mention it to anyone.
My surprise can be imagined when, two or three days afterward, the whole press, North and South, was filled with dispatches and editorials relating to my dinner with the President. For days and weeks I was pursued by reporters in quest of interviews. I was deluged with telegrams and letters asking for some expression of opinion or an explanation; but during the whole of this period of agitation and excitement I did not give out a single interview and did not discuss the matter in any way.
Some newspapers attempted to weave into this incident a deliberate and well planned scheme on the part of President Roosevelt to lead the way in bringing about the social intermingling of the two races. I am sure that nothing was farther from the President's mind than this; certainly it was not in my mind. Mr. Roosevelt simply found that he could spare the time best during and after the dinner hour for the discussion of the matters which both of us were interested in.
The public interest aroused by this dinner seemed all the more extraordinary and uncalled for because, on previous occasions, I had taken tea with Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle; I had dined with the governors of nearly every state in the North; I had dined in the same room with President McKinley at Chicago at the Peace jubilee dinner; and I had dined with ex-President Harrison in Paris, and with many other prominent public men.
Some weeks after the incident I was making a trip through Florida. In some way it became pretty generally known along the railroad that I was on the train, and the result was that at nearly every station a group of people would get aboard and shake hands with me. At a little station near Gainesville, Fla., a white man got aboard the train whose dress and manner indicated that he was from the class of small farmers in that part of the country. He shook hands with me very cordially, and said: "I am mighty glad to see you. I have heard about you and I have been wanting to meet you for a long while." I was naturally pleased at this cordial reception, but I was surprised when, after looking me over, he remarked: "Say, you are a great man. You are the greatest man in this country!" I protested mildly, but he insisted, shaking his head and repeating, "Yes, sir, the greatest man in this country." Finally I asked him what he had against President Roosevelt, telling him at the same time that, in my opinion, the President of the United States was the greatest man in the country.
"Huh! Roosevelt?" he replied with considerable empha-sis in his voice. "I used to think that Roosevelt was a great man until he ate dinner with you. That settled him for me."
This remark of a Florida farmer is but one of the many experiences which have taught me something of the curious nature of this thing that we call prejudice-social prejudice, race prejudice, and all the rest. I have come to the conclusion that these prejudices are something that it does not pay to disturb. It is best to "let sleeping dogs lie." All sections of the United States, like all other parts of the world, have their own peculiar customs and prejudices. For that reason it is the part of common sense to respect them. When one goes to European countries or into the Far West, or into India or China, he meets certain customs and certain prejudices which he is bound to respect and, to a certain extent, comply with. The same holds good regarding conditions in the North and in the South. In the South it is not the custom for colored and white people to be entertained at the same hotel; it is not the custom for black and white children to attend the same school. In most parts of the North, a different custom prevails. I have never stopped to question or quarrel with the customs of the people in the part of the country in which I found myself.
Thus, in dining with President Roosevelt, there was no disposition on my part, and I am sure there was no disposition on Mr. Roosevelt's part to attack any custom of the South. There is, therefore, absolutely no ground or excuse for the assertion sometimes made that our dining together was part of a preconcerted and well thought out plan. It was merely an incident that had no thought or motive behind it except the convenience of the President.
I was born in the South and I understand thoroughly the prejudices, the customs, the traditions of the South, and, strange as it may seem to those who do not wholly understand the situation, I love the South. There is no Southern white man who cherishes a deeper interest than I in everything that promotes the progress and the glory of the South. For that reason, if for no other, I will never willingly and knowingly do anything that, in my opinion, will provoke bitterness between the races or misunderstanding between the North and the South.
Now that the excitement in regard to it is all over, it may not be out of place, perhaps, for me to recall the famous order disbanding a certain portion of the Twenty fifth Infantry (a Negro regiment) because of the outbreak at Brownsville, Texas, particularly since this is an illustration of the trait in Mr. Roosevelt to which I have referred. I do not mind stating here that I did not agree with Mr. Roosevelt's method of punishing the Negro soldiers, even supposing that they were guilty. In his usual frank way, he told me several days prior to issuing that order what he was going to do. I urged that he find some other method of punishing the soldiers. While, in some matters, I was perhaps instrumental in getting him to change an opinion that he had formed, in this case he told me that his mind was perfectly clear and that he had reached a definite decision which he would not change, because he was certain that he was right.
At the time this famous order was issued there was no man in the world who was so beloved by the ten millions of Negroes in America as Colonel Roosevelt. His praises were sung by them on every possible occasion. He was their idol. Within a few days, I might almost say hours as a consequence of this order, the songs of praise of ten millions of people were turned into a chorus of criticism and censure.
Mr. Roosevelt was over and over again urged and be sought by many of his best friends, both white and colored, to modify or change this order. Even President Taft, who was at that time Secretary of War, urged him to withdraw the order or modify it. I urged him to do the same thing. He stood his ground and refused. He said that he was convinced that he was right and that events would justify his course.
Notwithstanding the fact that I was deeply concerned in the outcome of this order, I confess that I could not but admire the patience with which Mr. Roosevelt waited for the storm to blow over. I do not think that the criticisms and denunciation which he received had the effect of swerving him in the least from the general course that he had determined to pursue with regard to the colored people of the country. He was just as friendly in his attitude to them after the Brownsville affair as before.
Months have passed since the issuing of the order; the agitation has subsided and the bitterness has disappeared. I think that I am safe in saying that, while the majority of colored people still feel that Colonel Roosevelt made a mistake in issuing the order, there is no individual who is more popular and more loved by the ten millions of Negroes in America than he.