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A White House Tea and Michelle Obama

Eighty-one years ago this summer, an African American woman from Chicago’s South Side—just a couple miles from where Michelle Robinson Obama grew up—made national headlines.  Her name was Jessie DePriest.  Her husband, a Republican, had achieved an historic first just months earlier when he became the first African American ever elected to Congress from a northern state.  The DePriests’ home is now on the National Register of Historic Places but elsewhere their record has faded.

The election of 1928 is best remembered not for Oscar DePriest’s achievement but for Herbert Hoover’s landslide victory over Al Smith, a Catholic from New York.  Five states from the “Solid South” had broken ranks and voted Republican, and even though many attributed this shift solely to anti-Catholic sentiment, the Republicans were determined to protect these gains and possibly expand upon them.

And that left First Lady Lou Hoover with a problem.  As she confronted the job of shaping her first White House social schedule, including a tea for congressmen’s wives, she realized that noAfrican American had been prominently featured as a White House guest since Theodore Roosevelt dined with Booker T. Washington in 1901.  Although Washington had achieved considerable public recognition for his work at the Tuskegee Institute and for his writing and public speaking, many Americans judged him an unworthy guest of the President of the United States.  His very presence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue grated with some, and one newspaper headline deemed it the “most damnable outrage ever.”

Although differing accounts of the event raise questions about what really happened—how the invitation was offered, whether the meal was lunch or dinner, the presence of Edith Roosevelt—there is absolutely no question about the political fallout.  It was loud and hurtful, and it continued for years.  Whenever a race riot or lynching occurred, someone was sure to blame Theodore Roosevelt’s hospitality for stirring up trouble.  

A close look at Lou Hoover’s papers shows that she never considered omittingJessie DePriest, but she understood that one wrong move could do extensive political damage.  Both her sharp intelligence and Quaker egalitarianism came into play as she and her staff struggled with how to proceed.  Rather than one or two large teas, as had been customary, she decided to give five over a three-week period, and the last one on June 12 would include Jessie DePriest.  Each guest that day had been carefully screened for her views on matters involving race, and it is telling that to assemble even fifteen, Lou Hoover included her sister, her secretary, and a couple of congressional wives who had already attended earlier, much larger gatherings.  White House staff, accustomed to directing all African Americans to the service entrance, received strict instructions that Mrs. DePriest should be escorted through the main entrance to the Green Room.

The elegant Jessie DePriest, who died in 1961, apparently left no record of her impressions of that day but a photograph of her in fashionable flapper attire shows how carefully she had prepared.  The chief usher singled her out as the most “dignified woman in the room,” and her husband verified that she had received courteous and respectful treatment.  White House staff, many of them African Americans who had worked there for decades and knew that other African Americans, both slave and free, had helped construct the president’s house, could hardly believe their eyes.  One of Lou Hoover’s secretaries recalled that the butler who served the tea cakes seemed particularly moved:  “You can imagine what this meant to him—to see one of his race being entertained by the wife of the President [sic].”

Although the Hoovers did not publicize the event, word got out and objections came in from across the nation.  Several southern state legislatures passed resolutions condemning the President’s wife, and an Alabama newspaper insisted she had offered the nation “an arrogant insult.”  Letters from both men and women chastised her for bringing “disgrace” to the White House, damaging her husband’s political standing and setting back race relations.  Even the DePriests’ home town produced critics.  One Chicago woman wrote Mrs. Hoover:  “This nation of white people elected you and your husband to take care of the nation…and we did not think we would have to be ashamed of our actions later….”

Rather than defend herself, or even acknowledge her critics, Mrs. Hoover stayed focused on her own agenda as she and her staff moved on.  In four years as First Lady she piled up a substantial number of firsts—inviting noticeably pregnant women to stand with her in the receiving line at official functions and speaking on the radio in feminist terms, telling young boys it was as much their responsibility as their sisters’ to help around the house.  But the Great Depression that marred her husband’s tenure also left her courage and innovations unheralded.

The eight decades separating Oscar DePriest’s election in 1928 and that of Barack Obama in 2008 brought increased prominence for presidents’ wives.  Once written off as trivial footnotes, presidential spouses have captured headlines as they campaigned on their own, spearheaded movements, acted as trusted advisers to the Oval Office, and traveled the world as the nation’s unofficial ambassadors.  Not all have chosen to take advantage of their potentially powerful platform, but those who did changed history. 

Although unpaid and unelected, many presidents’ wives achieved world wide recognition for their own accomplishments.  Propelled from the First Lady springboard, Hillary Clinton catapulted to elective office herself, and then challenged old thinking about the viability of a woman candidate for president.  When President-elect Obama invited her to join his cabinet, the Boston Globe reported that women in remote villages of Ecuador were “beaming at the thought that she would become the next Secretary of State.”

Michelle Obama has no doubt studied her predecessors’ records and noted both their accomplishments and flaws.  But in her next walk through the White House, she might want to stop a moment in front of the portrait of Lou Hoover.  Monumental changes have occurred since that afternoon tea that included Jessie DePriest.  What has not changed—in fact, it remains clearer than ever before—is the power a presidential spouse holds—to take a stand, make a statement, and help set a course.