And at the time, Roosevelt was considered to be racially enlightened. But he too was victim of the times and considered blacks inferior to whites.
“I would not be willing to die for what I regard as the untrue abstract statement that all men are in all respects equal, and are all alike entitled to the same power,” Roosevelt argued. “But I would be quite willing to die … for the proposition that each man has certain rights which no other man should be allowed to take away from him.”
By 1905 — and safely back in the White House for a second term — Roosevelt had completely surrendered.
In a landmark speech at the Lincoln Dinner of the New York Republican Club on Feb. 13, 1905, Roosevelt explained that race relations must be adjusted so that the “backward race be trained that it may enter into the possession of true freedom while the forward race is enabled to preserve unharmed” its high civilization.
Quite naturally, Roosevelt said he believed that racial purity must be maintained.
“Civil law can not regulate social practices,” Roosevelt told the gathering at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. “Society, as such, is a law unto itself, and will always regulate its own practices and habits. Full recognition of the fundamental fact that all men should stand on an equal footing, as regards civil privileges, in no way interferes with recognition of the further fact that all reflecting men of both races are united in feeling that race purity must be maintained.”
No doubt the process “must necessarily be slow,” continued the president; “it is a problem demanding the best thought, the utmost patience.”
Patience is one constant requirement in African American life. That too is a historical fact, and while Robert Kennedy may be given credit for predicting that a black might — one day — become president, black folks knew it all along.
Or at least, they hoped.
Sam Cornish was one of the hopeful. Cornish had gained notoriety after he and John Russworm started the first African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, in 1827.
That paper lasted a little less than two years, but on July 1, 1837, Cornish was at the helm of another newspaper, The Colored American, in which he published what he thought would need to occur before a black could become president.
“Let us do our part, fill up the schools, and effect a punctual attendance, and the trustees will spare no pains nor expenses in furnishing all the means of a useful and finished education,” the Colored American wrote. We ought to feel more interested in this subject, brethren — we owe it to prosperity. We are not always to be a downtrodden people. Our infant sons, should we give them suitable advantages, will be as eligible to the Presidency of the United States, as any other portions of the community; and it is our wisdom, if possible, to give them as ample qualifications.”
It took 172 years from Cornish’s writing, but on Tuesday, that day finally came.