Niggers in the White House

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The poem, as it appeared in The Kentucky New Era on March 13, 1903

"Niggers[a] in the White House" was a racist poem that first appeared in many American newspapers between 1901 and 1903.[2] The author wrote it because he did not like Booker T. Washington, an African-American[b] political leader, teacher and author, attending a dinner at the White House. Washington had been invited by President Theodore Roosevelt, who was white. Many years later, in 1929, the poem appeared again. This was after African-American congressman Oscar DePriest's wife went to a tea for congressional wives at the White House. She had been invited by First Lady Lou Hoover. Many white people, especially in the Southern United States, did not like either visit. They held the opinion then that African-American people should not be involved in government affairs.

The poem has fourteen stanzas. Each stanza has four lines. The second and fourth line of each stanza rhymes. The bad word "nigger" is seen many times in the poem.[5] Nobody knows who wrote it.

History[change | change source]

Booker T. Washington incident[change | change source]

Booker T. Washington was an African American born into slavery.[6] He was freed in 1865 and rose to become an educator and a national leader of African Americans.[7] On October 16, 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt asked Washington to have dinner with his family at the White House. It was a working dinner, Roosevelt's intention was to appoint Washington to advise him on issues of race. A family friend from Colorado, Philip Stewart was also there. A reporter from the AP Wire asked the president about his appointments he was going to announce the next day. But the story that appeared in the AP wire read: "Booker T. Washington, of Tuskegee, Alabala, dined with the President last evening."[8] This caused some shock among many white people.[9] The President of the United States had sat down to dinner with a black man, a former slave at that.[9] African Americans had visited the White House before but had never been asked to dine there.[9] Washington had dined with President McKinley previously which also caused an uproar at that time.[10] This time segregationalists in the U.S. Congress were outraged.[8] Senator "Pitchfork" Bill Tillman of South Carolina said, "The action will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again."[8][11][12]

After this, somebody decided to write the poem, "Niggers in the White House". No one knows who the author was.[2][5]

The DePriest incident[change | change source]

Many years later, in 1929, First Lady Lou Hoover, wife of president Herbert Hoover, invited Congressional wife Jessie DePriest to join her for tea.[13] She was a black woman married to Oscar DePriest, the first African American to be elected to Congress from Illinois.[13] People were also upset about this.[14] The poem appeared again because of this incident.[15] Southern newspapers and racist critics reacted with their normal outrage and letters of protest.[16] The White House spokesman pointed out the president and his wife were simply doing their constitutional duties. As examples President Grover Cleveland had hosted Frederick Douglass and his wife[c] On five separate occasions president Woodrow Wilson met at the White House with the black minister from Haiti, Solon Menos.[16]

Politicians took sides. Senator Coleman Blease from South Carolina inserted the poem in a Senate resolution. The resolution with its poem were rejected and removed from the Congressional Record. The vote was based on protests from senators Walter Edge (from New Jersey) and Hiram Bingham (from Connecticut).[15] Senator Bingham described the poem as "indecent, obscene doggerel verse" which gave "offense to hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens and an offense to the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution."[17] Senator Baise then agreed to withdraw the resolution he said, as a favor to Senator Bingham and not to the negro race.[17]

Excerpt[change | change source]

Below are the first three stanzas of the poem.

I see a way to settle it
Just as clear as water,
Let Mr. Booker Washington
Marry Teddy's daughter.

Or, if this does not overflow
Teddy's cup of joy,
Then let Miss Dinah Washington
Marry Teddy's boy.

But everything is settled,
Roosevelt is dead;
Niggers in the White House
Cut off Teddy's head.

Notes[change | change source]

  1. The word Nigger is a noun in the English language. At first it was a neutral term. It meant black people and was a variation of the Spanish/Portuguese noun negro. This word in turn comes from the Latin adjective niger ("color black"). Over time it became a very offensive and insulting name for a black person. It is sometimes used between black people themselves. But it is most upsetting when used by people of other ethnitities (people who are not black).[1]
  2. The word "African-American" came into popular use in 1988. Jesse Jackson was a candidate for the Democratic party nomination for President of the United States. In a speech he said, people of African descent preferred the term African-American over the word "black".[3] Since that time African-American has become acceptable when referring to Black citizens of the United States. This is also true for Black citizens of South American countries. However it is not used for Black people living in Africa or African citizens living elsewhere.[4]
  3. This was even more controversial at that time since Frederick Douglas, a black man, was married to a Caucasian woman.[16]

References[change | change source]

  1. Randall Kennedy, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (New York: Vintage Books, 2003), p. 4
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Niggers in the White House". Retrieved September 30, 2016.
  3. The Columbia Guide to African American History Since 1939, ed. Robert L. Harris, Jr.; Rosalyn Terborg-Penn (New York; Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2008), p. 97
  4. Talmadge Anderson; James Benjamin Stewart, Introduction to African American Studies: Transdisciplinary Approaches and Implications (Baltimore, MD: Inprint Editions, 2007), p. 3
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Niggers in the White House". The Dispatch. February 18, 1903. p. 7.
  6. Kristin Thoennes Keller, Booker T. Washington: Innovative Educator (Minneapolis, MN: Compass Point Books, 2007), p. 15
  7. Margo McLoone, Booker T Washington (Mankato, MN: Bridgestone Press, 1997), pp. 5–7
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 'The Night President Teddy Roosevelt Invited Booker T. Washington to Dinner', The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 35 (Spring, 2002), pp. 24–25
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Deborah Davis, Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner that Shocked a Nation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), p. 206
  10. Kristin Thoennes Keller, Booker T. Washington: Innovative Educator (Minneapolis, MN: Compass Point Books, 2007), p. 89
  11. Aida Donald (2007). Lion in the White House: A Life of Theodore Roosevelt. Basic Books. pp. 138–. ISBN 978-0-465-01032-5.
  12. Randall Kennedy (18 December 2008). Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. pp. 8–. ISBN 978-0-307-53891-8.
  13. 13.0 13.1 American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy, Second Edition, ed. Lewis L. Gould (New York: Routledge, 2001), p. 280
  14. "A Tempest in a Teapot". White House History. Archived from the original on October 5, 2013. Retrieved November 18, 2013.
  15. 15.0 15.1 "Offers "Niggers" poem". Evening Tribune. June 18, 1929. p. 7.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 David S. Day, 'Herbert Hoover and Racial Politics: The DePriest Incident', The Journal of Negro History Vol. 65, No. 1 (Winter, 1980) p. 9
  17. 17.0 17.1 David S. Day, 'Herbert Hoover and Racial Politics: The DePriest Incident', The Journal of Negro History Vol. 65, No. 1 (Winter, 1980) p. 13

Other websites[change | change source]