Booker in a November 5, 1901 letter to to Mrs. A. J. Kaine and Mr. Franklin W. Hooper, first he mentions his famous–and now controversial–dinner at the White House in October 1901.
I have been very much interested in the many things that have been written and said about my dining with the President,” he tells Kaine. “I have not attempted to keep up with all the foolish and the false things however, that have been written. I am not at all disturbed about what has been said about the matter.”
In the 1904 letter Washington hesitates to accept another speaking invitation from the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, fearing it will stir controversy for T. R. ‘s reelection bid: “the political campaign will be at its height about that time, and it will be difficult for me to say anything that will not be taken up by one of the political parties and twisted into a wrong direction or made capital of.”
Meanwhile, Roosevelt on September 26, 1904 sent a letter and editorial to his friend and admirer, Lyman Abbott, editor of The Outlook and adds spirited comments on those who have accused him of racial bias in his appointments in southern states:
“Mind you, what I have done in Alabama I have done everywhere else in the South, and with all the venomous attacks upon me, the southerners who make the attacks cannot deny that I have elevated the public standard by by appointments in the South; and curiously enough, I have appointed fewer colored men than my predecessor. Have you noticed that Collier’s Weekly attacks me because I have gone too far in my policy of doing justice to the Negro while the Evening Post declines to support me because I have not gone far enough!…The Pittsburg Post’s statement is, of course, a pure lie. I have in no State constituted a board of white and negro politicians, to whom has been committed the control of the federal patronage. As a matter of fact, the only negro whom I have consulted about appointments in the South has been Booker Washington. It does seem to me that this issue is far more than merely political. If a man like Carl Schurz had one particle of intellectual and political honesty in his make-up, he could not support the Democrats in this campaign in view of their attitude to the South of his own recent utterances on this very question.”
Roosevelt’s forward-thinking attitude toward race caught him in a political and social catch-22. His attraction to Booker T. Washington was based on the fact the great educator preached an evolutionary policy rather than agitation or violence. Roosevelt’s meetings with Washington in 1901 convinced him that Roosevelt “wanted to help not only the Negro, but the whole South.” To ensure getting the 1904 presidential nomination, Roosevelt began to build up alliances in the South, and was often met with opposition. Washington was invited to the White House in October 1901 to discuss with Roosevelt, then still Vice President, concerns about the South. Despite efforts to avoid publicity, news that a black man had dined in the White House reached the papers and infuriated many Southerners. The Memphis Scimitar called the dinner “the most damnable outrage ever,” while “blacks… sized up the dinner as a fragment of hope amid a rising tide of discrimination”). Because of Roosevelt’s public attention to Washington, criticisms continued that he favored the Southern black cause; equally, reformers felt he was not doing enough.
Washington, on the other hand, wanted to maintain his status as the most prominent black leader, confidante of tycoons and Presidents, but insisted on being an apolitical figure. Stressing economic uplift instead of political agitation, he downplayed racist attacks in favor of emphasizing empowerment and social acceptance. The dinner with Roosevelt was a landmark achievement in that respect. T. R. admirably refused to apologize for the invitation, but he never repeated the episode. Neither Washington nor any other black American dined at the White House for the remainder of his term. He did, however, continue to consult Washington privately on racial and Southern politics.
Washington published five books during his lifetime with the aid of ghost-writers Max Bennett Thrasher and Robert E. Park. They were compilations of speeches and essays:
The Story of My Life and Work (1900)Up From Slavery (1901)
The Story of the Negro: The Rise of the Race from Slavery (2 vol 1909)
My Larger Education (1911)
The Man Farthest Down (1912)
In an effort to inspire the “commercial, agricultural, educational, and industrial advancement” of African Americans, Washington founded the National Negro Business League (NNBL).
Late in his career, Washington was criticized by leaders of the NAACP, a civil rights organization formed in 1909. W. E. B. Du Bois advocated activism to achieve civil rights. He labeled Washington “the Great Accommodator”. Washington’s response was that confrontation could lead to disaster for the outnumbered blacks. He believed that cooperation with supportive whites was the only way to overcome racism in the long run.
Despite his travels and widespread work, Washington remained as principal of Tuskegee. Washington’s health was deteriorating rapidly; he collapsed in New York City and was brought home to Tuskegee, where he died on November 14, 1915, at the age of 59. He was buried on the campus of Tuskegee University near the University Chapel.
Booker T. Washington’s coffin being carried to grave site
His death was believed at the time to have been a result of congestive heart failure, aggravated by overwork. In March 2006, with the permission of his descendants, examination of medical records indicated that he died of hypertension, with a blood pressure more than twice normal, confirming what had long been suspected. At his death Tuskegee’s endowment exceeded $1.5 million. Washington’s greatest life’s work, the education of blacks in the South, was well underway and expanding.