In September, Library of Congress Archives, History and Heritage Advanced Internship Program (AHHA) program interns Emily Alesia Poteat and Christopher Smothers made a call to action to volunteers seeking assistance in locating African American voices and experiences in the Theodore Roosevelt Papers. Their internships now complete, Emily and Christopher express their sincerest thanks for By the People and History Hub volunteer support in this project, as they received many valuable tips from the volunteers in the process! Since this call to action, Emily and Christopher have sifted through documents in the Roosevelt Papers dating from 1901 to 1909 in search of these voices and experiences. From their work and the support of volunteers, Emily and Christopher have made many important revelations about the contents and potential this collection has for future researchers. To thank the volunteers for sharing their finds, Emily and Christopher each want to share a document they found most intriguing in their work.
Emily Alesia Poteat, Villanova University, MA Public History ‘22
Over the course of this internship, I located and read a number of important and intriguing manuscripts. Through this work, a letter from William Augustus Patton, an assistant to the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, sent to William Loeb, Roosevelt’s presidential secretary, stands out. Sent on March 3, 1908, Patton wrote to Loeb to affirm that protection for Charles Lee, an African American man in charge of Roosevelt’s horses, was ensured for his journey from “Jersey City to Washington, D.C.” This document is significant, as it demonstrates measures made by the Roosevelt administration to ensure the protection of their African American employees. Moreover, this letter raises numerous additional questions. What previous incident necessitated this sort of assurance to be sent to Roosevelt’s presidential secretary? Was this a typical response from the Roosevelt administration to acts of discrimination against its African American employees? More broadly, however, this letter is indicative of an overall trait of the Theodore Roosevelt Papers. This collection demonstrates how presidential personal paper collections differ vastly from official presidential collections in their contents. As I discovered over the course of my internship, all correspondence from 1905 to 1909 in this collection, pertaining to African Americans were sent to and received from members of the upper echelons of society. Disappointingly, the voices of African Americans themselves are not well represented in correspondence in the Theodore Roosevelt Papers from Roosevelt’s second term as president. Rather, the collection presents the experiences of African Americans as filtered primarily through the communications of Roosevelt and his correspondents among the elites.
Christopher Smothers, Clark Atlanta University, BA History ‘22
A letter dated October 31, 1901 to President Theodore Roosevelt from African American educator Booker T. Washington following his controversial dinner with President Roosevelt at the White House on October 16, 1901, fascinated me because it reveals that Washington did not anticipate this response to his dining at the White House. Washington’s meeting happened only one month after Roosevelt was sworn in as president, following the assassination of President William McKinley. In this letter, Washington articulates his hope for the possibilities of their diplomatic relationship despite the pushback from Southern critics.
Roosevelt’s extensive relationship with Booker T. Washington was the exception, not the rule. While Roosevelt gave ear to the wishes of his African American political ally, it is important to understand the exclusive perception he had towards highly educated African Americans was an elitist mentality not afforded to all African Americans. Notwithstanding, Roosevelt made sure that Washington understood their unique public and private alliance. Still, their professional relationship provided a unique opportunity for Washington to influence political appointments throughout the South.
From these two documents one can gain a sense of how Theodore Roosevelt engaged with issues affecting African Americans during the years of his presidency, as well as the types of documents one can expect to find in this collection. Again, we would like to thank all the volunteers for their support in this project!
All the best,
Emily and Christopher