Race Relations under Theodore Roosevelt
During his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt established a mixed record in his relationship with American blacks, as illustrated by the following two events:
- Booker T. Washington`s Visit to the White House. In late 1901,
Booker T. Washington, the prominent black educator and spokesperson, was invited to the White House to advise the president. Following a successful exchange of ideas, Roosevelt asked Washington to dine with him.
This meeting was widely reported in the press and caused an uproar in the South, where many still believed that it was inappropriate for whites and blacks to mingle socially. This event negatively influenced Roosevelt`s relationships with Southern Congressmen for the remainder of his term in office.
Blacks, however, gave the president high marks for honoring one of their leaders and for being subjected to bitter criticism for his action.
As for Roosevelt`s views, he was clearly a believer in Anglo-Saxon superiority, but not to the extent that it prevented him from seeking advice from members of other races. Washington continued to share views with the president over the years, but was never invited back to the White House.
- The Brownsville Incident. In the summer of 1906, the first battalion of the 25th Infantry regiment, all blacks, was transferred from Nebraska to Fort Brown near Brownsville, Texas. Despite a splendid record in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection, the African-American soldiers were not welcomed into their new community. Many white residents of the south Texas community were fearful that the newly arrived blacks might ally with the large Mexican-American community and upset the carefully maintained racial balance. Letters were sent to Washington asking for the removal of the soldiers, but all such appeals were turned down.
In the early morning hours of August 14, a melee broke out near the fort and shots were fired. Casualties included a dead bartender and a seriously wounded policeman. Brownsville citizens immediately stepped forward and blamed the soldiers, some claiming to have actually seen the soldiers firing shots and others asserting that they heard black voices during the skirmish. On the strength of these allegations, plus the finding of several discarded army rifles and shell casings, 12 members of the 25th were imprisoned. In short order, two cursory investigations were held, neither of which presented any formal charges. No trial was held and the soldiers were never able to confront their accusers.
Following the incident, the soldiers were assembled and those who had participated in the riots were ordered to stand forward; none did. The soldiers were then ordered to inform on those others in the ranks who had taken part in the riot; none spoke. On the basis of this lack of cooperation, charges of insubordination were prepared. Not only were the 12 originally arrested recommended for discharge “without honor,” but the other 155 black soldiers, as well.
President Roosevelt, hoping for black support at the polls, waited until after the Congressional election before signing all 167 discharges. All were removed from service, denied any back pay owing and had their pensions cancelled. Scores of lives were ruined.
It was evident from the beginning that the charges were dubious. A commanding officer reported that all soldiers had been accounted for in their barracks several hours before the shooting erupted. Other officers and clergymen vouched for the character of the men. Many were longtime enlistees, a few were close to retirement and six were Medal of Honor recipients.
Most of black America was outraged, but lacked the power to reverse matters. Among the white politicians, only Senator Joseph Foraker of Ohio attempted to introduce legislation that would have allowed the reenlistment of the soldiers; his efforts were thwarted and Roosevelt regarded him as an enemy.
It became clear in later years that the townspeople of Brownsville had framed the soldiers, reflecting a fear of black men in uniform that had its roots in Reconstruction days. It was not until 1972 that Richard Nixon signed a bill correcting the records of the 25th Regiment to read “honorable discharge.” A small payment of $25,000 was made to the sole survivor.
The Brownsville incident was in the eyes of many the low point of the Theodore Roosevelt administration.
See other Theodore Roosevelt domestic activity