Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Politics in 1929: The Hoovers' Teapot Tempest

White House Historical Association

Jessie L. DePriest via Barbara DePriest
The White House Historical Association published a piece last week entitled "A Tempest in a Teapot" involving Iowa natives Lou (Henry) and Herbert Hoover that illustrated a couple of points we sometimes overlook these days. Among them, the fact that U.S. politics always have had the potential to bring out the worst in nearly everyone. Another, that race relations in the United States were in a deplorable state well into the 20th century, so much so that today's residual racism seems mild by comparison.

For those who have forgotten, Lou Henry was born during 1874 in Waterloo, although her family moved to California when she was a girl. Hoover was born during 1874 in West Branch, but after he was orphaned as a boy moved to Oregon to live with relatives at age 11. The two met while attending Stanford University and married in 1899. He served as president and she, as First Lady, from 1929 until 1933. Both are buried on the grounds of the Hoover presidential library at West Branch.

Although the Hoovers were decent Quaker people, neither was a social progressive nor was either especially anxious to rock the political boat when it came to matters of race, especially since Hoover's Republican party, at the time, was trying to woo supporters in the South, where a segregation-based culture of racial purity had been allowed to entrench itself.

Push came to shove socially and politically in the spring of 1929 after Chicago's Oscar Stanton DePriest became during 1928 the first black person elected to Congress during the 20th century.

It was traditional at the time for the incumbent First Lady to entertain the wives of congressmen to tea at the White House, so in June of 1929 Lou Henry Hoover (and her husband and his staff) faced a social --- and political --- crisis that, fortunately, seems absurd today. Black people simply were not under any circumstance entertained socially at the White House. Washington, D.C., was in fact a segregated city.

As late as 1939, for example, both the Daughters of the American Revolution and the District of Columbia Board of Education declined to provide a venue where the legendary Marian Anderson might perform on Easter Sunday. The result was her game-changing recital on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

A decade earlier, Lou Henry Hoover did the honorable thing and invited Oscar S. DePriest's wife, Jessie, to tea --- but bent over backwards to (a) minimize controversy and (b) spare Mrs. DePriest the insults and slights she no doubt would have been subjected to had she been cast into the witch's brew of unscreened congressional spouses.

Rather than one large tea, several smaller ones were given; Jessie DePriest was invited to the final tea; and the guest list was carefully considered.

As tends to happen in matters of politics and race, however, controversy could not be avoided and there was a huge outraged outcry after the event in the South and elsewhere expressed in the media and via correspondence --- Facebook, of course, was not yet available. Including the letter that follows here from a charming Omaha couple.

White House Historical Association

Go read the historical association piece by following the link in the first paragraph here, if you like --- and be grateful that we've made a bit of progress since then.

In despair about the current level of political screeching and hollering? Just keep good old Ecclesiastes 1:9-10 in mind: "That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one might say, "See this, it is new "? Already it has existed for ages Which were before us .…"

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