PROGRAMMING ALERT: Watch Brian Kilmeade discuss this topic and more on “Jesse Watters Primetime” on Fox News Channel on Monday, November 13 at 8 p.m. ET
In his new book, “Teddy and Booker T: How Two American Icons Blazed a Path for Racial Equality,” “Fox & Friends” anchor and author Brian Kilmeade shares the story of how Theodore Roosevelt and American intellectual and former slave Booker T. Washington worked together to bring the United States to greater racial equality. Roosevelt sought Washington’s counsel as he struggled to steer the country — and especially the South — forward in the wake of Jim Crow laws and racial violence. Here is an excerpt:
A full five years after promising Booker T. Washington that he would come to Alabama to visit the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, Theodore Roosevelt finally arrived. His train steamed to a stop early on October 24, 1905, pausing first in the town of Tuskegee. The day was chilly for October, but many of the two thousand inhabitants, along with others from the surrounding villages of Tallassee and Cheha, clogged the streets with wagons and carriages pulled by horses and mules. Black and White residents of Tuskegee lined the byways and town square, hoping for a glimpse of the president.
After being greeted by the mayor, Roosevelt gave a short speech. It was warmly received – – this was a rare honor, having the Chief Magistrate of the United States stop in their Alabama town – but folks were wary, too. Two Pinkerton detectives had arrived two days earlier to identify “suspicious characters” who might have “evil designs upon Dr. Washington.” Since McKinley’s assassination, Roosevelt himself routinely carried a revolver when in public, but danger seemed always in the air for Washington, even close to home. Just a year earlier, the district’s own congressman, Tom Heflin, had stood on the steps of Tuskegee’s court house and threatened Washington with lynching. In response, the partisan crowd had risen to its feet in a standing ovation. But the day of Roosevelt’s visit would be a peaceable day.
After reboarding the presidential train, the party traveled the last mile along the private spur that connected the school to the main rail line. There Booker greeted his friend Theodore, and they took seats in a fine carriage built by students at the school, pulled by horses bred in Tuskegee’s pastures, and driven by a young man dressed in his brass-buttoned blue school uniform. They went directly to an elaborately decorated reviewing stand.
Roosevelt had to see Washington’s campus to truly believe it – and the president was amazed. In just twenty-five years, enrollment at Tuskegee Normal had risen from thirty original students to fifteen hundred, a number that exceeded that of Roosevelt’s own alma mater, the ancient and revered Harvard University. The physical plant, once just a single, leaky-roofed shanty, now consisted of thirty-three buildings, most of them multistory and built of brick made on site, many named for such philanthropic captains of industry as Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Huntington. Booker Taliaferro Washington had created all this and even accumulated an endowment of more than a million dollars.
A parade began with students marching past the reviewing stand, the men in their blue uniforms, white gloves, and cadet caps, the women in blue dresses trimmed with red braid and blue straw hats. A total sixty-one floats followed, each representing a branch of activity at Tuskegee, from broom making to blacksmithing, millinery to machining, architecture to agriculture. Students on every float enacted some aspect of discipline. Girls made butter on the creamery float, a history class examined reference books found in Roosevelt’s “Winning the West,” and men rigged wires on poles on the electrical division float.
After a tour of the grounds, which consisted of two thousand acres in tillage that produced foodstuffs, cotton, and livestock, the presidential party was serenaded in the chapel by the 150-voice Tuskegee choir. Then Washington briefly bade his guest welcome, expressing “the gratitude felt by the people of the Tuskegee Institute, and by the people of both races in this section of Alabama, for the honor” of his visit. Then Roosevelt went to the podium.
First, he spoke off-the-cuff and from the heart. “You can’t be as much inspired by any thing I may say,” he told the students and teachers arrayed before him, “as I have been inspired by what I have seen here.
“Mr. Washington, it is a liberal education just to come here and see this great focus of civilization.”
When he turned the notes of his prepared remarks, he read a speech that Washington had critiqued and shaped, one that made the familiar case for Black education. Roosevelt spoke to White citizens: “In the interest of humanity, of justice, and of self-protection, every white man in America, no matter where he lives, should try to help the Negro to help himself.” He addressed “lawlessness, in all its forms,” citing lynching in particular. He warned the students that their “race cannot expect to get everything at once.” He pled for harmony, cooperation, and the common destiny they shared as “law-abiding American citizens.”
If Roosevelt’s address surprised no one, his presence alone was a reward for the man standing beside him as the applause swelled. Much as he would have liked to, however, Dr. Washington could not invite his guest for lunch, though it was high noon. Both men knew the dangers, immediate and political, were too great. Thus, Washington escorted the president back to his train, which soon pulled out of the Tuskegee station. Booker was left to savor Theodore’s renewed promise: “While I have always stood for this institution, now that I have seen it,” he had said for all the to hear, “I will stand for it more than ever.”
If Roosevelt brought empathy to the circumstances of America’s Black citizens, Washington more than matched it with hope. Together they shaped a highly unusual collaboration that lasted beyond Roosevelt’s time in office. They could not reverse generations of racism and racist policy, but they challenged the assumptions of their fellow Americans and got Black men appointed to historically unprecedented positions of power. Although their joint victories had been limited, Roosevelt’s very public recognition of Washington, brief and compromised though it was, affirmed Washington’s status as the most essential spokesman of their era for Black America.
No one is perfect; nor is any friendship. Yet Booker and Theodore were men of virtue, men who worked together in good faith to do good, to live up to Lincoln’s ambitions for a “more perfect union.” They were the right men for their moment even if, at times, their efforts misfired–the great make mistakes, too. But Booker T. and Teddy had a vision. They had drive. And their skins were tough enough that they drove forward even in the face of often vicious criticism. We are a better nation because they chose to fight; they would not settle, recognizing that progress is always a battle.
This excerpt is adapted from “Teddy and Booker T: How Two American Icons Blazed a Path for Racial Equality” by Brian Kilmeade with permission from Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC copyright © 2023 by Brian Kilmeade.