Future generations may look back at 2020 as the Year of Madness. In the name of racial justice, statues of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant – the two men most responsible for the eradication of American slavery – have been defaced. The destruction in Madison, Wisconsin of the monument to Hans Christian Heg may mark the nadir of the inanity. Heg, a Norwegian immigrant, devoted his life to the abolitionist cause, fought bravely in several Civil War battles, and died leading a charge against a numerically superior Confederate force. His statue was torn down, decapitated, and thrown into a lake.
The equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt at the entrance of the American Museum of Natural History is another target of our national Cultural Revolution. The monument features Roosevelt on horseback, with a Native American on one side and an African on the other, both on foot. According to James Earle Fraser, the sculptor, the two figures at Roosevelt’s side “are guides symbolizing the continents of Africa and America, and … stand for Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” According to John Russell Pope, the Museum architect, the three figures together comprise “a heroic group.”
The statue will be removed because some object to the fact that Roosevelt occupies a position of prominence, seated in the center on horseback while his Indian and African guides stand on either side. The configuration, socially conscious critics insist, signifies that the Indian and African are inferior.
Of course there is another, less contentious explanation for Roosevelt’s central placement: the statue was erected to honor him. Roosevelt was a devoted conservationist and the author of many books on natural history. As President, he placed some 230 million acres of land under protection. His father was a co-founder of the Museum, which has enjoyed a long association with the Roosevelt family. He occupies the central position for the same reason a newly wedded couple occupies the center of a family photograph. It doesn’t signify that the family members off to the sides are inferior; it simply means that they are not the main subject of the photograph.
The fact that removal has been ordained by the Museum Board itself, rather than by a mob, should fool no one. The Board acted under the same pressure animating the rest of our Cultural Revolution.
Rather than organize counter-mobs to protect such statues, perhaps the best response may be to use these events to educate the public. As the destruction of the Hans Christian Heg statue demonstrates, much of the current madness arises from plain ignorance. The best cure for ignorance is knowledge.
Reasonable people may differ about the artistic merit of the hierarchical placement of the three figures. But the real issue is Roosevelt’s views on race relations – which the Museum describes as “troubling.” Fortunately, we don’t have to guess about those views. Roosevelt was a prolific writer, and much of his public and private correspondence is stored at https://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/, the online repository of the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson University.
Roosevelt was born in 1858, two years before the Civil War began, and died in 1919, more than a century ago. Language, customs, and conventional thinking were very different in his day. Taking such differences into account, an honest examination of his papers leaves no doubt that Teddy Roosevelt held remarkably progressive views on race relations. These views might not find favor today with the current exponents of critical race theory, “white fragility,” and reparations. But they are very much in line with the noble, color-blind precepts of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
In 1898, with the onset of the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt resigned from his post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to form the First U.S. Voluntary Cavalry Regiment, better known as the Rough Riders. The New York City-born, Harvard-educated Roosevelt grew up associating with the social elites of his time. His regiment had plenty of men of Roosevelt’s background, such as Dudley Dean “perhaps the best quarterback who ever played on a Harvard Eleven,” and Hamilton Fish, the ex-Captain of the Columbia crew. But taken as whole, the Rough Riders reflected the diversity of the nation.
“The regiment attracted adventurous spirits from everywhere,” Roosevelt recalled in The Rough Riders, his 1899 account of the unit.
Our chief trumpeter was a native American, our second trumpeter was from the Mediterranean – I think an Italian – who had been a soldier of fortune not only in Egypt, but in the French Army in Southern China. Two excellent men were Osborne, a tall Australian, who had been an officer in the New South Wales Mounted Rifles; and Cook, an Englishman who had served in South Africa.
Roosevelt recounted: “From the Indian Territory there came … Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Creeks.” He noted that many of these recruits were graduates of Indian schools established by “the White race to balance the very unpleasant debit account of its dealings with the Red.” Following a battle, Roosevelt recalled: “L Troop was from the Indian Territory. The whites, Indians, and half-breeds in it, all fought with equal courage.” In particular, he noted the bravery of “Thomas Isbell, a half-breed Cherokee in the squad under Hamilton Fish.” He was wounded no fewer than seven times but refused to leave until the last one. “By that time, he had lost so much blood that he had to be sent to the rear. The man’s wiry toughness was as notable as his courage.”
The regiment included the sons of Confederate Army veterans and the sons of slaves. Of the African American fighters, Roosevelt noted: “The Rough Riders, although for the most part Southwesterners, who have a strong color prejudice, grew to accept them with hearty good-will as comrades and were entirely willing, in their own phrase, ‘to drink out of the same canteen.’”
Crossing the color line to share water with an African American was a significant event. Perhaps Roosevelt was painting an idealized portrait of race relations in his regiment. But even if he were, the fact that he saw such co-mingling as the ideal tells us much about Roosevelt’s convictions.
Years later, during a campaign speech in Butte, Montana, Roosevelt recalled:
In Santiago, I fought beside the colored troops of the 9th and 10th Cavalry. If a man is good enough to have him shot at while he’s fighting beside me under the same flag, he is good enough to have me try to give him a square deal in civil life. More than that, I will give no man, and less than that, I will give no man.
In 1901, following the assassination of William McKinley, Roosevelt became President. One of his first steps was to invite Booker T. Washington, the founder of the Tuskegee Institute, to dinner at the White House. Inviting an African American to meet at the White House was not unheard of. Previous presidents had done so on a few occasions. What was noteworthy – in fact, earth-shaking –was inviting a black man to dinner.
Dining was code for social equality. In some states, particularly in the South, inviting a man to dinner was equivalent to permitting him to woo the owner’s daughter. Deborah Davis, author of Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation notes:
There was hell to pay, first weeks, then months, then years, then decades. This story did not go away. …[A]n assassin was hired to go to Tuskegee to kill Booker T. Washington. He was pursued wherever he went. Theodore Roosevelt was criticized in ways that presidents were not criticized. There were vulgar cartoons of Mrs. Roosevelt that had never been done before. This was all new territory.
As President, Roosevelt increased the number of African Americans appointed to federal posts. Some of these appointments, such as naming a black man to be Collector of the Port of Charleston, South Carolina, were bitterly resented by local officials. In response to a letter from the Mayor of Charleston protesting the appointment, Roosevelt wrote:
I do not intend to appoint any unfit man to office… but I cannot consent to take the position that the door of hope – the door of opportunity – is to be shut upon any man, no matter how worthy, purely upon the grounds of race or color. Such an attitude would, according to my convictions, be fundamentally wrong.
This was a private letter, one which Roosevelt could not have expected to see the light of day. There is no reason to doubt his sincerity when he describes the text as reflecting his “convictions.”
Roosevelt’s views can best be described as color-blind. In some states, blacks constituted an important part of the Republican Party coalition. But while Roosevelt would not refuse an appointment on account of race, neither would he consent to an appointment for that reason. He articulated this viewpoint in a private letter to Republican National Committee member James E. Clarkson, who, in his earlier role as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, had helped some 500 slaves escape. Roosevelt wrote to him:
It is in my mind equally an outrage against the principles of our party and of our government to appoint an improper man to a position because he is a Negro, or with a view of affecting the Negro vote; or on the other hand, to exclude a proper man from an office or as a delegate because he is a Negro. I shall never knowingly consent to either doctrine.
Roosevelt’s color-blind philosophy aroused enmity in both political parties. A Democratic Party newspaper in Alabama satirized his efforts to attract black voters, labeling him “Teddie the (color blind) tenor” in this revoltingly racist cartoon:
Meanwhile, Roosevelt had to contend with efforts by members of his own Party to exclude African Americans for political reasons. A cartoon in the Des Moines Register shows him rushing to stop a “Lily White Republican” bearing a sash which reads “Motto: Exclusion of the Negro,” from throwing a mud at a statue of Lincoln.
This demonstrates, by the way, that desecrating statues of Lincoln is nothing new.
Roosevelt’s color-blind attitude and actions persisted after he left the White House. In 1911, he wrote to Harry Pratt Judson, president of the University of Chicago, asking him to look over the manuscript, Military Morale of Nations and Races, written by Captain Charles Young, “the only officer in the United States Army who is a colored man.” Roosevelt added: “I happen to know personally that Captain Young is a most excellent officer, a man fit to uphold the high traditions of the American Army as only our best officers uphold them.” In his manuscript, Captain Young argued that supposedly “servile” or “un-military races” (he referenced “Negroes and Jews”) would display martial virtues when fighting for democratic societies, and concluded that the best way to raise an army from America’s polyglot population was to link patriotic service with the promise of equal rights. His book was published, and dedicated to Roosevelt.
Roosevelt’s progressive views were not limited to minorities already in America. It extended to immigrants.
The largest class of immigrants in his day were Jews from Eastern Europe, desperately trying to escape the government-sponsored pogroms and systemic anti-Semitism of Czarist Russia. In some ways, the Jewish immigrants of the 1890s and early 1900s resembled today’s immigrants from Central America, also trying to escape the murderous conditions of their native lands.
As Police Commissioner in New York City, Roosevelt expressed admiration for Jewish immigrants trying to improve themselves through physical exercise, much as he himself had done. In his autobiography, he referred to “the indoor Jew of fine bodily powers who had taken to boxing, wrestling, and the like.” The New York City Police Department had many Jewish officers, and Roosevelt praised the “excellent work of what I might call the Maccabee-type in the Police Department under me by police officers of Jewish extraction.” He also described how he used those Jewish officers to make an important point:
While I was Police Commissioner an anti-Semitic preacher from Berlin, Rector Ahlwardt, came over to New York to preach a crusade against the Jews. Many of the New York Jews were much excited and asked me to prevent him from speaking and not to give him police protection. This, I told them, was impossible; and if possible would have been undesirable because it would have made him a martyr. The proper thing to do was to make him ridiculous. Accordingly I detailed for his protection a Jew sergeant and a score or two of Jew policemen. He made his harangue against the Jews under the active protection of some forty policemen, every one of them a Jew! It was the most effective possible answer; and incidentally it was an object-lesson to our people, whose greatest need it is to learn that there must be no division by class hatred, whether this hatred be that of creed against creed, nationality against nationality … We must ever judge each individual on his own conduct and merits, and not on his membership in any class.
Perhaps because of his positive experiences with Jewish immigrants in the New York Police Department, Roosevelt selected several Jews to join his Rough Riders. The first fatality in his Regiment was Jacob Wilbusky, a 16-year old Jewish cowboy from Texas. Many other Jews serving in the outfit received awards for valor.
In 1903, President Roosevelt sent a strong letter of rebuke to Czar Nicholas II, after the Kishinev pogrom. A political cartoon of the time shows Roosevelt reprimanding the Czar for the “cruel oppression of the Jews.”
That pogrom, along with a series of other bloody attacks on Jews in Russia and Romania, led to waves of Jewish immigration. As is happening today, this mass movement also triggered nativist resentment. Roosevelt opposed labeling Jews as a separate race on their passports, stating:
I should no more have a man entered on a passport as a Hebrew than as an Episcopalian, or a Baptist, or a Roman Catholic. … Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad.
Roosevelt’s record was not blemish-free. In 1906, racial tensions erupted between the townspeople of Brownsville, Texas and the nearby segregated regiment of black soldiers stationed at Fort Brown. A white bartender was killed and a white police officer wounded. Town officials blamed the black soldiers, citing spent bullet cartridges from Army rifles as evidence. The soldiers’ white officers claimed that their men had been in their barracks all night, and that the evidence was planted. When the black soldiers refused to testify, Roosevelt ordered the discharge of 167 soldiers of the regiment, costing them their pensions and preventing them from ever serving in federal civil service jobs. A subsequent investigation by the US Senate Military Affairs Committee supported Roosevelt’s decision, but questions persisted about the justification and severity of his order. Decades later, in 1972, the Nixon administration ordered a new investigation, which resulted in a reversal of Roosevelt’s order and the posthumous restoration of the soldiers’ good conduct records. A classic case of too little too late.
In addition, during his entire military and political career, Roosevelt took no action to desegregate the armed forces, or to alter the tradition of having white officers commanding black troops, never the reverse. Such progress was decades away. Desegregation would not occur until after World War II, when Harry Truman implemented it by executive order.
But there is no denying that Theodore Roosevelt was far ahead of his time in matters of race relations. Moreover, the man was a work in progress. Had he lived longer (he died at the relatively young age of 60), his views would have undoubtedly advanced.
In 1917, with the entry of the United States into World War I, the retired President, intent upon reprising his role with the Rough Riders, set about organizing a volunteer division to rush over to France. He planned to include a black regiment in the division. He wrote to Captain Charles Young, offering him command and “carte blanche” in organizing it. This would have required giving Captain Young authority to appoint his staff and line officers. Considering the racial composition of the Army at the time, this would have entailed appointing white officers to positions subordinate to a black commander.
This revolutionary arrangement did not take shape because President Wilson refused to allow Roosevelt to organize his division. Neither Roosevelt nor Young would see action in the Great War.
But the episode helps settle the issue of Theodore Roosevelt and race relations. Though a man of his time, he was also ahead of his time. In his own imperfect way, he aspired to the vision of a color-blind society, one that offered equal opportunity to all races, and to native born Americans and immigrants alike.
Visitors to the American Museum of Natural History should know these things when they visit. When they pass the statue of Teddy Roosevelt accompanied by Native American and African guides, they should understand his ideals. If the visitors are American, they should even feel some sense of pride in belonging to a country that produces such men. They should learn about Roosevelt so that when the statue is gone, they will understand that a void exists that leaves them, and the Museum, the poorer for it.