Monday, April 27, 2015

"Taking on Teddy Roosevelt" by Harry Lembeck (2015)

There is a widespread belief which holds that the 1948 defection of the so called “Dixiecrats” who left the Democratic Party over Harry Truman’s desegregation of the Armed Forces sparked the defection of African-Americans from the Republican Party of Lincoln to the Democratic Party of today.  And there is some truth to that. But the real migration began about 50 years before that and involves Theodore Roosevelt, Booker T. Washington, and a riot in Texas which may not have been what it appeared to be.

In August 1906 the 25th Colored Infantry Division was stationed at Fort Browning in Brownsville, Texas. They had replace the all-white 24th which had served it’s time and was rotating back east. The townsfolk were more than a bit leery of having armed colored troops stationed just outside of town.

After several racially motivated incidents, several men; supposedly from the fort; went on a shooting spree, wounding some of the townsfolk and damaging most of the buildings which had refused to serve them. The events that followed underscored the deep racial divisions which split America in the days after the Civil War and still divide us in many ways.
President Theodore Roosevelt, who had served as William McKinley’s Vice President, was seen as a “gradualist” in the matter of race relations. He talked a great game about equality as he set the Great White Fleet off to show the flag, but here at home the President allied himself with Booker T. Washington; the African-American educator who founded the Tuskegee Institute to train Negroes in the Industrial Arts. 

In some ways Tuskegee was a trade school; rather than a true college of higher learning. He believed; and the President agreed with him; that Negroes were better suited for factory work and menial labor rather than any of the professions. They believed that it would take time to achieve the educational levels for Negroes to rise in society. One has to wonder whether or not anyone ever bothered to ask Booker T. how he had made the transition so quickly, and why he felt that his contemporaries could not.

The author explores the attitudes of the times in relation to the expectations of the African-American concerning armed blacks in the military. Although the “colored” troops had performed well in the Civil War; and the legendary Buffalo Soldiers; to whom the soldiers of the beleaguered 25th Colored Regiment were related by history; the people in Brownsville Texas were clearly not comfortable in having these troops present. It was only a matter of time until something happened.

The author explores the writings of some of the most illustrious African-American writers of the day; pitting the writings of W.E. DuBois against the politics; and policies; of Booker T. Washington and President Roosevelt. While DuBois was initially in agreement with the “gradualism” approach to equality, he ultimately saw the flaws in this arrangement. Who would decide when African-Americans were ready for advancement? Shouldn’t that question be decided by the African-Americans themselves; rather than be left with the very government which had allowed them to be enslaved for over 80 years after Independence had been declared?

This is a sweeping book encompassing both the incident at Fort Browning itself; as well as the political implications for the entire nation at the time. It would be well to remember that the history in these pages informs the debate on race relations in America today every bit as much as the news in today’s paper.

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