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Instinct and Inconsistency

President Theodore Roosevelt was instinctively inclusive.  He became President on September 14, 1901.  On October 16 he invited Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House.  This was the first time any President had included a black man among his dinner guests.  According to one Tennessee newspaper, this was “the most damnable outrage that has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States.”  The New Orleans Times-Democrat disapprovingly opined: “When Mr. Roosevelt sits down to dinner with a negro, he declares that the negro is the social equal of the White Man.”  Other newspapers and individuals uttered even harsher sentiments. The President was very disappointed by the reaction.  According to someone who knew him well, “Roosevelt seldom approached anyone as a member of a class, but almost invariably as an individual.”

The following year he appointed a black man to be Collector of the Port of Charleston.  It seemed like a good political decision because this office did not require much interaction with the public.  But, once again, there were complaints.  Even some of the President’s closest friends told him he had made the wrong decision.  He stood his ground and tried to convince them to consider the new Collector’s impressive qualifications rather than the color of his skin.

In 1905 he appointed a black woman to be postmistress at Indianola, Mississippi.  This seemed like a safe appointment because she had already served in that capacity.  At first everything was okay, but eventually, through no fault of her own, she was driven out of office.

In 1906, when Roosevelt received unfavorable reports regarding the black battalion stationed in Brownsville, Texas, he relied more on the official report than on his instincts.  In a later private conversation with a friend he was asked why he had been so harsh on the soldiers.  His reply was simple and regretful:  “Because I listened to the War Department, and I shouldn’t.”

 

The Postmistress – Postscript

Minnie Cox was a resourceful individual.  So was her husband.  On April 27, 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt wrote to a friend regarding the mob which prematurely ended Mrs. Cox’s career as postmistress of Indianola, Mississippi.  Then, on June 21 Roosevelt wrote another letter to that same friend where he quoted from two sources.

Quoting from the first source, the President wrote:  “It will interest you to know that the Cox family, over whom such a disturbance was made in connection with the Indianola, Miss., post office, have started a bank in that same town which direct and reliable information convinces me is in a prosperous condition.  The bank has the confidence of both races.  It is a curious circumstance that while objection was made to this black family being at the head of the post office, no objection is made to the black man being president of a bank in the same town.”

Quoting from the second source:  “Now with reference to Mr. W.W. Cox, of Indianola, Miss., I beg to advise that no man of color is as highly regarded and respected as he.”

But the President was still upset over Mrs. Cox’s ouster.  Referring to the earlier incident he wrote: “This woman and her husband came to the conclusion that perhaps their death, certainly the destruction of their property, would follow any effort of the woman to retain her office; and the Mayor and Sheriff said they could not protect her.  Out she went.  Now the fantastic fools and moral cowards who encouraged or permitted the mob to turn her out are depositing their funds in the husband’s bank…”

Theodore Roosevelt was rightly skeptical.  He had demonstrated good judgment regarding the Indianola postmistress, but in a matter of weeks his judgment would fail him as he reacted to a serious incident in Brownsville, Texas.

The Postmistress – Part 3

Indianola, Mississippi was not far from where President Theodore Roosevelt had hunted bear during the autumn of 1905.  In a letter dated April 27, 1906 he bemoaned the sudden departure of the black postmistress he had reappointed with bipartisan support.

Mrs. Minnie Cox was not only an able postmistress, she was charitable as well.  When her white customers were short of funds, she would pay their overdue P.O. box fees.  She invested in local businesses and grew prosperous.  From the late 1880s into the early years of the 20th century she was accepted and respected by the community at large.

When the bad element drove her out of office, the remaining locals, according to Roosevelt, “deprecated the conduct of the mob and said it was ‘not representative of the real southern feeling.’”  But did they invite her back?  No!  “[They] then added that to save trouble the woman must go!”

The President was not pleased.  He continued the postmistress’s salary but closed the Indianola post office for the remainder of Mrs. Cox’s term.  Meanwhile, the people of Indianola, in order to retrieve their mail, had to avail themselves of the post office in Greenville, more than 25 miles away.

The Postmistress – Part 2

Race relations seemed to have progressed nicely.  Regarding the black postmistress of Indianola, Mississippi, President Theodore Roosevelt said: “The best people of the town liked her.”  But what appeared to be progress was mere acceptance of the status quo.  She had been appointed by President Benjamin Harrison back in the late 1880s, served through President Cleveland’s second term, and was reappointed by President McKinley.  Roosevelt carefully investigated her history, noted her bipartisan sponsorship, and reappointed her.

Because she had been postmistress for so many years, probably no one remembered her predecessor.  So far as the townspeople were concerned, she had not displaced anyone.  She was simply part of the scenery.

One day a new physician came to town.  If Indianola could have a black postmistress, perhaps they would also welcome a black physician, especially if none of his patients were white.  Unfortunately for him, the trust he had in the black community caused some white physicians to lose clientele.  That’s how the trouble began.

In a 1906 letter to an old friend, President Roosevelt wrote about the black physician.  “He was one of those men who are painfully educating themselves, and whose cases are more pitiful than the cases of any other people in our country, for they not only find it exceedingly difficult to secure a livelihood but are followed with hatred by the very whites who ought to wish them well.”

Then, speaking of the white doctors who had lost patients, Roosevelt wrote:  “They instigated the mob which held the mass meeting and notified the negro doctor to leave town at once; which to save his life he did that very night.”

Roosevelt added: “Not satisfied with this, the mob then notified the colored postmistress that she must at once resign her office.”

No President can stand idly by while one of his appointees is driven out of town, and Theodore Roosevelt, the President who met every problem head on, was certainly no exception.

 

The Postmistress – Part 1

The postmistress and her husband were “well-to-do, and were quite heavy taxpayers.”  That’s what the President wrote to his friend.  He further characterized her as “kindly, humble, and respectable,” adding that “The best people of the town liked her.”

What exactly did he mean by “the best people?”  Why, none other than “the two bankers of the town,” one of whom was a state senator from the other political party.  Surely there would be no problem if the President were to reappoint the postmistress.  This the President did, and he received the support of both U.S. Senators from that state.  They too were members of the other political party.  Her reappointment was indeed a demonstration of bipartisanship.

So far so good, especially when we consider that the postmistress was black and the story took place in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era.  Here was a community where the content of one’s character rather than the color of one’s skin prevailed.  Here was an oasis of opportunity for all people.  Word was bound to get out, and when it did, good people were bound to move there.

One day a new physician arrived in town.  Shortly afterwards the trouble began.

The Doctor, Dave, and Mr. Tommy

Eventually Dave became a real estate broker, but during his early years he was the “colored” butler of a Southern family.  Even after the Doctor and his wife had passed away, Dave continued to follow their son’s career with great interest.  After all, Dave had made a promise to the Doctor.

It happened when the Doctor was in his late seventies.  His son was pursuing a successful academic career up North, and he had taken his father into his home, but the Doctor was restless.  He often traveled south, sometimes to visit his wife’s grave, but more frequently to visit the town where he would have access to Dave.

“Mr. Tommy is a smart man, Dave!”

Dave tacitly agreed.

“Dave, he’s one of the smartest men in this country.”

Dave was in obvious agreement.

“Dave, come here.  Let me tell you something.”

Dave came closer.

“One of these days Mr. Tommy will be a candidate for President of the United States!  I won’t be here, Dave, but you will.  Are you still voting?”

Remarkably, despite Jim Crow, Dave was one of the few blacks of his day who had not been disenfranchised.

“Dave, promise me this:  When I’m gone and Mr. Tommy is running for President, you will go down to the polls and put in my vote – not yours, Dave, but mine – mine!”

On November 5, 1912 Dave Bryant kept his promise to the Rev. Dr. Joseph Ruggles Wilson.  Tommy won that election, defeating two men who had already served as President.  We remember Tommy as President Woodrow Wilson.

By the way, the Doctor, who died in 1903, predicted his son’s Presidential candidacy more than a dozen years before it happened.

 

Forget What Happened Inbetween

George Washington did not sign the Declaration of Independence.  He was either in camp or on the battlefield at the time.  Of the 56 signers only two were future Presidents of the United States.  When Washington became President, one of these two signers was his Vice President for two terms.  The other was his first Secretary of State.

In 1796 Washington did not run for a third term.  The two major candidates that year were the two signers mentioned above.  When the Electors met, Washington’s Vice President became the new President, and Washington’s first Secretary of State became the new Vice President.

By 1800 it was obvious they could not work together.  In the first negative campaign in U.S. history, the Vice President’s agents were calling the President a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

In turn, the President’s men responded by calling the Vice President “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”

The Vice President became the new President, and the outgoing President chose not to attend the inauguration of the successor who unseated him.  Many miles separated them, and they were not on friendly terms for many years.

By 1826 they had long since patched things up.  On July 4 of that year, with his dying breath, the 2nd President of the United States seemed comforted by the notion that at least one signer of the Declaration still lived.  But he was mistaken.  The other signer, the man who had been the principal author of the Declaration, had died that morning.