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Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nationby Deborah Davis
THE BIG HOUSE
Hale’s Ford, Virginia, was “about as near to nowhere as any locality gets to be.” That’s how Booker T. described the rural community in Franklin County where he was born in April 1856, or maybe ’57 or ’58—he was never sure of the year because the records kept by slaves were very sketchy. He wasn’t sure about his father, either, although rumor had it that he was a white man from a nearby plantation, possibly the Hatcher farm or the Ferguson place. His mother, Jane, cooked for her owners, the Burroughs family, and lived with her three children, John, Booker T., and little Amanda, in a broken-down cabin on their property. The floor was dirt, the walls were cracked, and the centerpiece of the dilapidated one-room dwelling was a large pit where the Burroughses stored their sweet potatoes for the winter. There was also a swinging “cat” door for a house pet to use as an entrance and exit, something that always amused Booker T. because there were enough holes in the broken walls to provide full access for a whole litter of cats.
Jane had a husband, a slave named Washington Ferguson who belonged to the Ferguson family next door, but she saw him infrequently because he was hired out on jobs far from home. Whenever he visited, Wash proved to be a hard, unsentimental man with little patience for his two stepsons or his daughter, Amanda. During the Civil War he escaped to West Virginia, where he became a free man. Not that his new life was easy. Wash toiled in the salt mines of the Kanawha Valley and endured long separations from his wife back in Hale’s Ford.
Although Booker T. always referred to the Burroughs home as the “big house,” there was nothing big about it. The word plantation usually evoked images of stately white mansions with Roman columns and sweeping verandas, but Jones and Elizabeth Burroughs and, at various times, some or all of their fourteen children lived in a nondescript, five-room house made of logs. They were working farmers, not Southern aristocrats, and the ten slaves they owned were an investment as well as a source of labor. Each slave had a dollar value. Jane, who was getting on in years, was worth $250, while Booker T., who had a lifetime of work ahead of him, was assessed at $400.
Daily life for Booker T. was defined by what he didn’t have and couldn’t do. He and his siblings never slept in a bed or sat down at a table to share a meal. Instead they ate like “dumb animals,” he later recalled, grabbing “a piece of bread here and a scrap of meat there.” Even kernels of corn that had been overlooked by the pigs were fair game for a hungry boy. Having a mother who was a cook made things worse because she prepared the meals for the “big house” in her own fireplace, and the tantalizing scents of forbidden foods reminded the children of what they were missing. Occasionally Jane would see to it that a bootlegged chicken came their way but, more than anything, Booker T. coveted the ginger cakes he saw his young mistresses serve their visitors. He thought the delicacies, sweet with molasses and fragrant with the exotic scent of ginger, were “the most tempting and desirable things” he had ever seen. Freedom, in his childish imagination, was an unlimited supply of ginger cakes.
Booker T.’s dream was to learn to read. His favorite chore was to escort one of the Burroughs daughters to the Frog Pond Schoolhouse down the road. After she would go inside, he lingered and listened at the window, fascinated by the lessons and recitations he heard. He couldn’t make much sense of it, just enough to know that he wanted to enter this “paradise” and learn more. This was out of the question because teaching a slave to read was against the law in Virginia and everywhere else in the South. Besides, his other chores beckoned. There was corn to deliver to the mill, water to distribute to the field hands, and plenty of cleaning and sweeping.
The job he enjoyed most was fanning the dining room while his owners ate their meals. It wasn’t hard—all he had to do was work a pulley that operated a system of paper fans—and he could be privy to the family’s conversations. They discussed news of the ongoing war between the South and the North, and the machinations of Abraham Lincoln, the man they deemed responsible for all their troubles.
In the slave quarters, however, Lincoln was a god. Booker T. was often awakened by the sound of his mother praying for Lincoln to win the war, so she and her children could be free. Other slaves shared her reverence for the Union leader and, according to Booker T., “all their dreams and hopes of freedom were in some way or other coupled with the name of Lincoln.”
In April 1865, Lincoln’s forces entered Richmond, Virginia, and Union soldiers brought news of victory to slaves throughout the state. Jane, her children, and the rest of the slaves were called to the big house. Assembled on the front porch, they listened excitedly as the Emancipation Proclamation was read to them by a Union officer. The incredible truth that they were free sank in.
As the Burroughses watched the rejoicing of their former slaves, they seemed sad, not only because of the loss of their property, Booker T. observed, but also because they would be “parting with those who were in many ways very close to them.”
Some slaves, especially the older ones, decided to stay with the Burroughses because they could not imagine a life other than the one they knew. But Jane made up her mind that the only way to experience freedom was to leave the plantation. The family jubilantly packed their belongings in a small cart and set out to join Wash Ferguson in West Virginia. Booker T. and his siblings had to walk and camp in the wilderness throughout the two-hundred-mile trek to their new home. There were long days, cold nights, and even a terrifying encounter with a giant snake in an abandoned cabin. But their newly acquired freedom made the band of travelers feel euphoric and invincible.
Casting a shadow over Booker T.’s happiness was the sad news of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. The great leader was fatally shot on April 14, 1865. Even as Booker T. celebrated his own promising future, he mourned the death of his hero, who had virtually transformed him from a piece of property into a proud and independent citizen of the United States.
FIVE HUNDRED MILES from the backwoods of Virginia, in the heart of New York City, six-year-old Theodore Roosevelt and his little brother, Elliott, solemnly stood at a second-floor window in the Union Square mansion owned by their wealthy grandfather, Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt. It was April 25, 1865, and the two young boys were enthralled by the sight of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession passing directly in front of the house. The President’s body, which had been on view in Washington, DC, was on its way to its final resting place in Springfield, Illinois, by way of Baltimore, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Jersey City, and New York, where a significant tribute was in progress.
Theodore, who was born in New York City on October 27, 1858, worshipped Lincoln. But one of his earliest life lessons was that there were two sides—a North and a South—to every story. His mother, Martha Bulloch, was a Southern belle who grew up on a plantation in Roswell, Georgia, while his father, Theodore Roosevelt Sr., was a philanthropic Northerner from one of New York’s original aristocratic Dutch families. “Mittie,” as Martha was called, and “Thee” adored each other and their four children: Anna (“Bamie”), Theodore (sometimes called “Teedie” in his youth, and later TR), Elliott, and Corinne.
The family enjoyed a genteel existence in their five-story brownstone at 28 East Twentieth Street. Mittie, who always dressed in white, was considered one of the most beautiful women in the city, and Thee was so involved in his children’s lives that they called him “Greatheart,” after the hero in John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress. Money was plentiful—Thee’s father owned a successful glass business—and his fortune enabled his sons to make fortunes of their own.
The Roosevelt children were a smart, energetic, and good-natured bunch. They were educated at home by their mother’s sister, Anna Bulloch, and fussed over by their grandmother Bulloch, who moved in with them after her husband died. Surrounded by doting relatives, they enjoyed a secure and privileged life, from the bountiful meals served in the family’s parlor floor dining room, to the toys and comfortable beds that awaited them in their upstairs nursery. The children had a few complaints—the horsehair furniture in the parlor was prickly, they suffered the occasional punishment for misbehavior, and TR’s recurring bouts of asthma sent the whole household into a panic, usually in the middle of the night. But, for the most part, the Roosevelts’ familial universe was a tranquil one until 1861, when the outbreak of the Civil War created understandable tension in a household torn by divided loyalties.
Mittie’s brothers, James and Irvine Bulloch, were conscientious Southern gentlemen who eagerly enlisted in the Confederate Army, and Mittie, her mother, and her sister shared their enthusiasm for the cause. Thee, on the other hand, was a staunch supporter of Lincoln and the Union Army. Knowing that his wife was terrified that he and her brothers might come face-to-face on the battlefield, Thee paid a thousand dollars to a surrogate to fight in his place, a common practice at the time. Not that he shirked his wartime responsibilities. The ever-diligent Roosevelt was the architect of the country’s first payroll savings program for soldiers, which enabled military men to put aside money for their families while they were off fighting the war.
TR honored his Southern roots when he helped his mother surreptitiously send care packages to her relatives in Georgia. And he paid homage to his father when he theatrically prayed aloud for the Union Army to “grind the Southern troops to powder,” something he did when he wanted to annoy his mother. Mittie and Thee maintained their relationship and their sense of humor, however, and managed to navigate these challenging wartime years.
The Roosevelts set aside their conflicting loyalties to pay tribute to Abraham Lincoln on the occasion of his funeral. The entire city was in mourning, its businesses closed and its silent buildings swathed in black, with crowds lining the streets, jockeying for the best vantage points. Lincoln’s hearse was drawn by sixteen gray horses and followed by a procession of fifty thousand mourners. The cortege was so big, and moved so slowly, that it took four hours to pass by the Roosevelts’ window. The boys had the best view in town when the procession stopped in Union Square for a memorial service. There were speeches, prayers, and a reading of poet William Cullen Bryant’s “Funeral Ode to Abraham Lincoln.” Despite the record number of spectators, the city was eerily silent. “New York showed its grief at Lincoln’s death amply and elegantly,” praised the New York Times.
There was one unfortunate backstage drama that almost spoiled the tribute. Inexplicably, the New York City planning committee refused to allow African Americans to march in the cortege, a shocking decision considering that Lincoln was responsible for freeing the slaves. If the dead man’s horse could follow him, why not “the men for whom President Lincoln fought and worked, and died,” incredulous members of the black community asked.
Ultimately, it took an irate telegram from the secretary of war to resolve the issue. “It is the desire of the Secretary of War that no discrimination respecting color should be exercised in admitting persons to the funeral procession in New York tomorrow,” snapped the official communiquÉ. Grieving blacks were permitted to join their white counterparts in the procession, where they could “drop a tear to the memory of their messiah and redeemer.” A journalist covering the story noted sarcastically, “That ended the war of the races.”
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