Much of the still-segregated nation was in an uproar when word of the dinner was made public. The US senator from South Carolina, Benjamin Tillman, said, “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that [n-word] will necessitate our killing a thousand [n-words] in the South before they learn their place again.”
Elsewhere in South Carolina, however, sharecropper Will and homemaker Annie Johnson were so inspired by the president’s gesture of equality that they named their son (my grandfather) Theodore Roosevelt Johnson in his honor.
Though they could not vote in Jim Crow South Carolina, Will and Annie wanted their children to live in an America of liberty and opportunity for all that President Roosevelt’s action seemed to represent.
My grandfather was a minister, and he and his wife, Louisa, named their fourth son Theodore Roosevelt Johnson, Jr, again in hopes that their children would have the opportunity America promised, but that the racially charged 1950s did not allow.
Just over a year ago, I, Theodore Roosevelt Johnson III, walked out of the Blue Room of the White House and met the president and first lady. One of my family’s many generational hopes and dreams was finally realized once I shook hands with President Obama and spoke their names in the halls of the White House; the same space where President Roosevelt inspired two proud black people to take a leap of faith for the American promise.
This is my black history, and my American story. It indelibly binds me to a history that continues to live through me, and is not contained in an annual month-long study of facts and speeches.