Teddy and Booker T.: How Two American Icons Blazed a Path for Racial Equality
Teddy and Booker T.: How Two American Icons Blazed a Path for Racial Equality is a history lesson told through the lives of two remarkable men who were opposites in life circumstances but joined by deep respect, fierce intelligence, and a passionate commitment to America living up to her promise of liberty and justice for all. They shared, too, a refusal to define themselves by circumstances and a unique role in American history.
“In times of need,” writes Kilmeade, “American heroes have always arisen. In the mid-nineteenth century, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass formed a unique friendship to confront slavery; by century’s end, Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington, an equally unlikely pair, emerged as the heirs of the Lincoln-Douglass partnership.”
Kilmeade’s well-written and compassionate book offers Booker T. Washington a long-overdue second look. Born enslaved with only the name “Booker,” and growing up in poverty, his lust for learning and passion for teaching would mean everything to the internationally renowned man who became Booker T. Washington. He taught himself the alphabet, worked morning and evening shifts in a salt mine to attend a school for Black children, became a teacher, and founded the Tuskegee Institute.
Washington came to maturity as the Civil War and Reconstruction’s promise of equality crumbled from lynching and other mob violence, voting restrictions, and racial segregation. While W.E.B. Du Bois and other Northern Black intellectuals would come to regard him as an accommodationist (the “Great Traitor” and “the Benedict Arnold of the Negro race”) Kilmeade argues that Washington was “fighting from behind enemy lines.”
Was Washington’s reliance on “soft power,” his insistence on good relations with white Southerners cowardice or a strategic assessment of the all-too-ready, lethal mob violence some Southern whites were capable of? As a child, Washington had seen an uncle stripped, tied to a tree, and whipped with rawhide. As an adolescent, he’d seen a white mentor maimed while trying to stop a mob intent on racial violence. Though widely admired, Washington was the target of lynching threats.
Kilmeade writes: “Washington remained silent on the subject of lynchings even as the numbers rose to hundreds per year. He knew what happened to those who spoke up: They were invariably punished, often by banishment from their communities, and that he could not afford. Tuskegee was his life, his way of advancing the cause. He spoke up for his people when he felt he could, but with caution . . .” Perhaps not surprisingly, Washington’s more subversive actions were taken in background roles.
Roosevelt, in turn, was less a man than a force of nature. Born the weak, sickly son of a wealthy family, Roosevelt became a prolific author and naval historian, a devoted husband and heart-broken widower, a cattle man, a member of the New York State Legislature, Police Commissioner of New York City (where he battled corruption and established a more professional force), head of the U.S. Civil Service (where he replaced patronage with merit), Assistant Secretary of the Navy (where he advocated for the war with Spain that made him an American hero), Governor of New York, renowned conservationist, vice president, and later President of the United States.
Washington’s and Roosevelt’s mutual interest was part personal admiration and part political strategy. Kilmeade obscures Roosevelt’s complex and (to contemporary eyes) uglier attitudes toward race, instead describing Roosevelt as a “Darwinist who thought mankind, White and Black, was evolving,” and who regarded slavery as “morally indefensible.” Roosevelt needed the Black vote for a second term, while Washington knew the South’s white and Black candidates for judgeships and other federal positions who could oppose and perhaps end racially discriminatory practices.
Washington could have tea with the Queen of England, but Roosevelt’s hastily offered invitation to a family dinner at the White House caused the country’s newspapers to erupt in strained fairness or explosive rage over what some Southerners saw as “a double sin. As if dining with a Black man wasn’t damning enough, Roosevelt was clearly taking Washington’s advice concerning appointments . . . even allowing a Black man to help shape national policy.”
Roosevelt kept his word, appointing Washington’s candidates for port collector of customs, postmaster, and U.S. attorney, most of whom faced furious opposition from enraged Southern politicians. He never again invited Washington or any other Black man to his White House dining table, and by his second term, Roosevelt’s support waned, especially in the notorious Brownsville Buffalo Soldiers incident, where he failed to intervene in false charges against a Black regiment in the U.S. Army. Roosevelt left office to write and travel, only to launch a quixotic run for a third term that helped flip the election to Woodrow Wilson, a staunch racist. Washington, meanwhile, found a stridency that gained respect even from his old antagonist Du Bois.
Kilmeade ends this vibrant, necessary book with a call to the future: “Today America is the most successful multicultural nation in the world, but that does not mean the quest for true equality is over . . . We’ll never be perfect, but what makes America great is that we will always try to be.”