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Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation

Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation

by Deborah Davis


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In this revealing social history, one remarkable White House dinner shines a powerful light on race, politics, and the lives and legacies of Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington.

In this revealing social history, one remarkable White House dinner becomes a lens through which to examine race, politics, and the lives and legacies of two of America’s most iconic figures.

In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to have dinner at the executive mansion with the First Family. The next morning, news that the president had dined with a black man sent shock waves through the nation. Fueled by inflammatory newspaper articles, political cartoons, and even vulgar songs, the scandal escalated and threatened to topple two of America’s greatest men.

In this smart, accessible narrative, one seemingly ordinary dinner becomes a window onto post–Civil War American history and politics, and onto the lives of two dynamic men whose experiences and philosophies connect in unexpected ways. Deborah Davis also introduces dozens of other fascinating figures who have previously occupied the margins and footnotes of history, creating a lively and vastly entertaining book that reconfirms her place as one of our most talented popular historians.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781439169827
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 02/05/2013
Pages: 308
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Deborah Davis is the author of Fabritius and the Goldfinch; Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation; Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X; Party of the Century; and Gilded. She formerly worked as an executive, story editor, and story analyst for several major film companies. For more information, visit and follow along on Instagram @WarholRoadTrip.

Read an Excerpt

Guest of Honor

  • 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.”

  • Table of Contents

    Introduction 1

    The Big House 7

    Strive and Succeed 15

    The Force That Wins 25

    An Exemplary Young Gentleman 37

    Brick By Brick 43

    Great Expectations 49

    Let Me Keep Loving 56

    Moving Up 63

    Rough Riding 73

    Rising Stars 79

    Jump Jim Crow 93

    Pride And Prejudice 99

    That Damned Cowboy 107

    Best Behavior 113

    Lazy Days 119

    A Wild Ride 129

    The People's President 137

    The Family Circus 147

    Behind Closed Doors 161

    Fathers And Daughters 171

    Bold Moves 179

    Dinner Is Served 189

    A Big Stink 203

    Sitting Ducks 219

    Undercover 233

    Blindsided 249

    Slipping Away 257

    Eulogies 265

    Epilogue 273

    Acknowledgments 275

    Notes 277

    Bibliography 285

    Index 297

    What People are Saying About This

    From the Publisher

    "A well-researched, highly [listenable] treatment of an important era in racial relations, encapsulated in the meeting of two of the era's most significant men." —-Kirkus Starred Review

    Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for Guest of Honor includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


    At the turn of the twentieth century, racial tensions flared as African Americans struggled to adjust to a society that still carried many prejudices. African American statesmen and artists like Booker T. Washington, WEB DuBois, and Scott Joplin, were the first of many to fight for equality, each in his own way. Following the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, the smart, brash, and impetuous young vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, found himself in the position of Commander-in-Chief. Roosevelt started an active correspondence with Booker T. Washington, who quickly became a valued advisor and confidant. In the same year, President Roosevelt invited Washington to have dinner with the First Family. The next morning, news that the President had dined at the White House with a black man—and former slave—sent shockwaves through the nation.

    Linking the past and the present, Guest of Honor chronicles how one seemingly ordinary dinner became a defining moment for post-Civil War politics and provides insight into the lives of two dynamic men whose experiences and philosophies forever changed the American landscape.

    Topics & Questions for Discussion

    1. In her opening remarks, author Deborah Davis confesses that she was initially skeptical to take on the project of writing about this historic dinner. Why was she hesitant to write Guest of Honor? What changed her mind? Do you think Davis’s conclusion that the subject of the dinner is more “academic than entertaining” is valid? (MM p.4) What does Davis describe as her “biggest revelation on the project?” (MM p. 6)

    2. Why did you choose to read Guest of Honor with your book club? How much did you already know about Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt before you started reading? How did your opinions of both historical figures change after completing this book?

    3. Booker T. Washington and his family faced an enormous amount of hardship and resentment, even after they were freed from slavery. How did Washington persevere during this tough adjustment period? Do you agree with the parallel that Davis draws between the struggles of the young Teddy Roosevelt and the young Booker T. Washington? Why or why not?
    4. In many ways, Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington were polar opposites of their respective contemporaries. Discuss examples of how they stood out amongst their peers and how this contributed to their individual achievements.

    5. Washington and Roosevelt both lost their first wives when they were young men. How did they respond? Discuss Davis’s claim that home to these two men became “a bleak and forbidding place, redolent of disappointment and loss”? (MM p. 48) How do you think these two early tragedies shaped each man as individuals? As political leaders?

    6. Discuss examples of how Washington and Roosevelt embodied Davis’s notion of “practicality [being] more important than protocol.” (MM p. 66)

    7. In contrast to Theodore Roosevelt’s aggressive, impetuous and often brash style, Booker T. Washington was, as Davis puts it, a “secret activist.” Whose methods were more effective for their cause? Could Washington have benefitted from the President’s assertiveness? Could Roosevelt have been more cautious and subtle? Discuss your answers.
    8. Davis shifts the focus from the storyline leading up to the dinner in order to highlight the accomplishments of African Americans during the time period. Did a certain accomplishment or individual stand out to you? Did you learn something new about African American or United States history? How did these historical details enhance the narrative of Roosevelt and Washington’s controversial dinner?

    9. What were your reactions to Roosevelt and Washington’s struggles with their families, specifically their daughters? How did the two men’s personal lives suffer as a result of their political ambitions? Do you think their personal lives were worth the sacrifice of what they eventually accomplished? Why or why not?

    10. Even though Guest of Honor revolves around Roosevelt and Washington’s famous dinner at the White House, the dinner itself plays a considerably minor role in the overall book. Why do you think the author selected the title, Guest of Honor? Do you think being a “guest of honor” refers solely to Washington’s presence at the White House? How does viewing a larger cultural movement through the lens of a specific event provide new avenues for interpretation?

    11. Do you agree with Davis’s assessment that the dinner itself was a “Pandora’s box of racism that, once opened, was impossible to close”? (MM p. 200) Do you think this “box” would have been opened sooner or later, regardless of the dinner?

    12. How did the response of the Southern media and the Northern media differ? What does Davis cite as the reason for this difference? How did the distinct personality of both President Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington help them sustain the media frenzy and political storm that followed? Does Davis’s description of the media coverage remind you of how news outlets operate today? How much has changed, or remained the same, in regards to journalistic biases?

    13. Davis concludes that “where the dinner occurred was as important as the meal itself.” (MM p.224) Do you agree? Do you think the dinner would have garnered such a dramatic response if it were not at the White House?

    Enhance Your Book Club

    1. Author Deborah Davis provides readers with a menu from a typical Wednesday night dinner at the White House. Prepare one of the items on the menu to serve at your next book club meeting!

    2. Guest of Honor is not just about Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt; it highlights the achievements of many prominent activists, educators, artists, and statesmen. Select one additional character from Guest of Honor to research. Share some information about what you learned at your book club discussion.

    3. Theodore Roosevelt almost didn’t invite Booker T. Washington to the White House, but decided to do so before he had time to change his mind. Reflect on a moment in your life where you almost didn’t do something, but decided to follow your instincts and to go through with it—for good or bad! Have each member share his or her personal story at your book club’s meeting.

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