Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Mrs. DePriest

In the early summer of 1929, citizens in the nation's capital enjoyed reading about the White House activities of President Herbert Hoover and his wife, Lou Hoover, in their local newspaper. They learned that a "talking movie" was shown at the White House, that the president's pets had acquired silver-plated nametags, and that a policy had been implemented to reduce the number of handshakes the president had to endure during public receptions. By July, the Hoovers no doubt sorely missed such whimsical coverage, when it was replaced by reports criticizing Mrs. Hoover for inviting an African-American woman to attend a White House tea. Ordinarily, the First Lady's activities would have been covered in the society news; in this case, however, Lou Hoover made front page headlines in newspapers across the country. Early in her husband's administration, Mrs. Hoover planned to invite the wives of U.S. Congressmen to the White House, but she faced a dilemma. For the first time in decades, and for the first time ever outside the South, an African-American man had been elected to the U.S. Congress.

Should she invite his wife, Mrs. Oscar DePriest, to tea at the White House along with the wives of the other Congressmen? She decided to do so, and Mrs. DePriest accepted the invitation and did indeed visit the White House, igniting a firestorm that demonstrated the sensitive and symbolic nature of the White House, as well as the delicate state of race relations in America on the cusp of the Great Depression.

Oscar DePriest was the first African-American elected as a U.S. Congressman since Reconstruction, and he was the first African-American ever elected to serve in the U.S. Congress from outside the South. A Republican from Chicago, DePriest began his term in March 1929, at the same time President Hoover started his term as president. It quickly became clear that a decision had to be made about what to do about Mrs. DePriest. While President and Mrs. Hoover tried to minimize political fallout, there does not seem to be much doubt that they would include Mrs. DePriest. It would be difficult to ignore White House traditions, so canceling the event was not really an option. Nor would the Hoovers snub Mrs. DePriest by excluding her.

Not since President Theodore Roosevelt invited African-American Booker T. Washington to a private White House dinner in 1901 had race relations touched the first family in such a personal way. President Roosevelt was severely criticized, particularly by the Southern press, for extending a dinner invitation to a Black man and thereby "degrading the White House." While some people praised Roosevelt for breaking a barrier, the widespread negative publicity convinced him not to offer such an invitation again. Subsequent presidents followed suit. Seemingly, it was more politically expedient to avoid controversy than to court it, but tradition and chance collided during the first year of Herbert Hoover's administration. Considering how potentially volatile the situation was, however, much thought and planning went into how to make the event as successful as possible and to minimize negative reaction. Years later, Irvin "Ike" Hoover (no relation to President Herbert Hoover), White House "chief usher"—supervisor of the White House household staff—described the incident in his published memoirs. He consulted with the First Lady's social secretary, who insisted that Mrs. DePriest be invited as a matter of protocol. The only similar situation he could remember was the Booker T. Washington dinner, and "precedents were sought, but none could be found that definitely applied" for planning the details of the event. The president's staff in the West Wing then discussed the upcoming event.

Finally, it was decided that the Congressional wives should be invited in several groups. Before the invitations were sent, Lou Hoover's social secretary visited with a small number of the women to identify those who would not be offended to be at the same social function as Mrs. DePriest. They decided to invite Mrs. DePriest to the last of the teas, for fear that doing otherwise might lead wives of Southern Congressman to boycott subsequent gatherings. One last preparation was needed: the morning of Mrs. DePriest's expected visit, White House security and doormen were alerted "to be careful when a colored lady should present herself and say she had an appointment with Mrs. Hoover, lest they create a scene by refusing her admittance."

On June 12, 1929, Mrs. Hoover received Mrs. DePriest and others in the White House Green Room. They then assembled for tea in the Red Room. Ike Hoover noted in his memoirs that "Mrs. DePriest conducted herself with perfect propriety. She really seemed the most composed one in the group." When she departed, there was "an admiration at the way she conducted herself" in a difficult situation.

Public reaction was less complimentary, however. Some southern newspaper editors accused Mrs. Hoover of "defiling" the White House. The Texas legislature went so far as to formally admonish her. President Hoover, in his memoirs, said that "the speeches of southern Senators and Congressmen… wounded [Mrs. Hoover] deeply." Mrs. Hoover's secretary, Ruth Fesler, later recalled that the first lady "stood her ground; she had done the right thing and she knew it."

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