African-Americans have run for U.S. president in the past. Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson come to mind, but neither won the nomination of their party. So when Barack Obama ran for president and won the nomination of the Democrats, it set up the real possibility that a black man would become president. That happened, of course, on Election Day in 2008.
While there certainly were exceptions, the 2008 election wasn’t centered on race, as some predicted. At least not outwardly.
Race has certainly played a role in political campaigns – and presidencies — in the past. One of the biggest racial controversies began as a simple invitation for a meeting at the White House. A month after taking office at the death of President McKinley in 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to a meeting at the White House. Washington, born into slavery, later founded the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) and was possibly the best-known African-American in the United States from 1880 until his death in 1915.
Some might have chalked the invitation up to a newbie in the White House. Don’t forget, this was just 35 years since the Civil War ended, and segregation was not only common, but the law of the land in many places. At the last minute, President Roosevelt not only invited Washington to a meeting, but changed it to a dinner meeting. While black men had met with presidents in the White House, they had never been invited to dine with the president and family.
In those racially segregated days, a dinner invitation was different than a meeting. It was seen as inviting the guest into your family. That wasn’t accepted in much of the country, but certainly not in the very-much-segregated South. Roosevelt, and Washington, both knew the meeting would cause some controversy. However, it would be safe to say that neither expected the uproar that was to come. The Memphis Scimitar newspaper wrote:
“The most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetuated by any citizen of the United States was committed yesterday by the President, when he invited a n—– to dine with him at the White House.”
For political collectors, the event led to some very valuable “pro” and “anti” items. Buttons and prints were issued showing the two men dining at a table with the word “Equality” on them. Then, another “anti” button version came on the market showing Washington much more prominent in the foreground of the table, with a large bottle of wine on the table and Washington’s skin tone much darker.
One of the most racist political buttons ever issued came out at this time. It shows a chimpanzee in a tuxedo at a table with the words “Have Supper With Me” across the bottom. Unless you know the history of the Roosevelt-Washington meeting, you’d probably never guess this pin is a political item. An example of this exceptionally rare button, with a number of stains, is going to be auctioned in early August at the American Political Items Collectors National Convention in Columbus, Ohio. I’ll report back then on what the pin brings. You can bet it won’t be cheap.