Wednesday, January 18, 2017

An Inauguration Story

Officials arrive at the Capitol for Theodore Roosevelt's 1905 inauguration
(Library of Congress)

T’was a sparkling day, the sky full of sun and wind, when Theodore Roosevelt took the oath of office on March 4, 1905.

TR, the youngest man elected President of the United States (until 1960), was bursting with vision and promise. He always experienced great moments – particularly his own – on the highest plane of exhilaration. 

The new president -- formerly a vice president, governor, and assistant secretary of the navy among other things -- had helped steer the nation to its new position as a global power. “Much has been given us, and much will rightfully be expected from us,” he now declared.

Yet more important than international affairs, said he, were the relationships among Americans:  

Modern life is both complex and intense, and the tremendous changes wrought by the extraordinary industrial development of the last half century are felt in every fiber of our social and political being. 

TR delivers his inaugural address
(Library of Congress)

I wonder if TR counted race relations among the challenges of modern life.  Four years earlier, he had invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House.  Throughout his career, Roosevelt had made remarks that seemed sympathetic to Americans victimized by prejudice.

He probably did not realize that those who planned the 1905 inauguration found black Americans to be very much in the way. 

A former U.S. Army general, George H. Harries, served as chair of the 1905 Inaugural Committee. Harries appointed a Sub-Committee for Colored Visitors whose 42 members (all black) were told that there must be “absolute separation” between the races although “our colored visitors should enjoy the fullest protection and be accorded the kindest hospitality in the houses of the refined members of their own race in this city.”

Similar actions had occurred at earlier inaugurations, largely in deference to Southerners. 

It’s hard to imagine how the Sub-Committee maintained segregation at the inauguration. Blacks constituted one-third of the District population. Were they swept off the streets? Barred from certain areas?  The Inaugural Committee's report does not explain what was done.

Two weeks out, the Sub-Committee for Colored Visitors asked the Secretary of War to include a squadron of the Ninth Cavalry – black troops – in the parade. He agreed.

The program performed at the inaugural ball at the Pension Building included a ragtime march called “Black America, a Negro Oddity,” written by a Detroit record store owner, Harry Zickel. The Committee on Music tucked it in among Strauss, Rossini, and Sousa.

Less than ten years earlier, the Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson (“separate but equal”), had formally ushered in the Jim Crow Era.

In 1901, the number of lynchings nationwide dropped from triple to double digits, but the needle wouldn’t move again until the early 1920s.

In 1906, the Brownsville Raid occurred in Brownsville, Texas.  White residents falsely accused black soldiers stationed at a segregated unit nearby of murdering a white police officer and a white bartender.  In a case of grave injustice, TR ordered dishonorable discharges for all 167 soldiers.*  

The 1905 inauguration turned out to be an inauspicious start to Roosevelt's first full term of office.  While he was tone deaf on race, however, he acted as a progressive on several significant social issues.  Interpreting what that means makes the study of history interesting. 
1905 inaugural parade; TR invited six American Indian
chiefs to participate, including the Apache Geronimo
(Library of Congress)

*In 1972, the Army exonerated the soldiers and President Nixon pardoned them.

See post December 28, 2016.

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