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The Short List

President Theodore Roosevelt signed the dismissal order on Monday, published it on Tuesday, and left for Panama on Thursday November 8, 1906.  On November 21 the Secretary of War finally reached him with a cable.


Roosevelt replied:


The President was instinctively inclusive.  He treated people as individuals and not as members of a group.  The President was a quick learner.  He was able to digest large amounts of information in a short time.  The President was also very stubborn.  When he was criticized by his white friends for appointing blacks to Federal office, he told them they were wrong.  He wasn’t going to remove competent individuals for political reasons.  Similarly, when he dismissed three companies of black soldiers, he was not going to reverse himself for political reasons.

By the time he realized his error the Senate had already begun its own investigation.  Leading the inquiry was Senator Joseph B. Foraker of Ohio.  Foraker was a Civil War veteran, and the sacrifice which Private Foraker made for emancipation was the seed that grew into Senator Foraker’s passion for civil rights.  He and Roosevelt were both Republicans, but the Senator had often sided with big business against the President.  Roosevelt saw him not as a champion of civil rights but as a political foe who was positioning himself to become Roosevelt’s successor.  The President wanted to pick his own successor, and it just so happened the Secretary of War was on the short list.


Quick Wits, a Hasty Verdict, and a Fast Exit

Theodore Roosevelt was a very smart man.  His friends and close acquaintances attested to his ability to digest large amounts of information in a short time.  One such occasion occurred during his post-Presidency while traveling by train.  Newspaperman William Allen White had already read the book Roosevelt was reading.  It contained many technical words, including some in French and German.  Occasionally, there was a Greek word.  When White read the book, he had plodded along at a pace of five to ten minutes before turning the page.  Regarding Roosevelt’s pace, White wrote: “But the Colonel charged through it all, breasting the big words like high weeds and comprehending what he was reading.”

How did White know Roosevelt was “comprehending what he was reading?”

“He was turning two or three pages a minute.  He peered over his glasses at me as I was grinning at him, and said: ‘You think I am faking.’”  When White nodded, Roosevelt replied: “All right. Take the book.  I have read to here.  Go back as far as you please and examine me.”

And here is White’s testimony: “I did.  He was letter-perfect.  It was one of the most extraordinary mental feats I ever saw.  How did he do it?”

Theodore Roosevelt was a very smart man.  As President he was also an energetic multi-tasker.  After giving the order which dismissed three companies of black soldiers from the Army, he made preparations to leave for Panama.  “I am going down to see how the ditch is getting along.”  When the Secretary of War had second thoughts about the dismissal order, he cabled Roosevelt, but the President could not be reached.




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.