'See You on the Other Side!' My Family, 2 Presidents, and the African American Dream

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When Theodore Roosevelt invited a black man to dine at the White House, it inspired a poor sharecropper and shaped his great-grandson's destiny.

johnsons.jpg The author (center), flanked on the left by President Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt Johnson Sr., and on the right by Theodore Roosevelt Johnson Jr. and Booker T. Washington

Our nation's capital is a living record of American history. Its iconic monuments and buildings allow visitors to navigate the American journey, from the Revolutionary War to the second inauguration of the first black president. As an officer in our military, I am quite familiar with the past of the country whose uniform I proudly wear. I was, however, unprepared for the personal story that unfolded last March while I was on my way to meet President Barack Obama.

First things first: I am Theodore Roosevelt Johnson III, and the origin of my name is fairly straightforward. Just a few weeks into his presidency on October 16, 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt invited prominent African American leader Booker T. Washington to dine with him at the White House. Though many other black activists had been to the president's residence, none had ever been granted such an intimate audience with the first family.

Washington waited in the Blue Room of the White House, an oval salon where presidents typically received guests. He probably passed the time admiring the blue satin drapery and 19th century French chandelier that accompanied a stunning view of the South Lawn. Roosevelt met him there and escorted him into the State Dining Room.

The day following this historic event, when newspapers across the country reported that a black man had dined at the White House, many people around the nation were furious. James Vardaman, who would go on to become the governor of Mississippi, said that the dinner had left the White House "so saturated with the odor of the nigger that the rats have taken refuge in the stable." A reader of a Jacksonville, Florida, newspaper sent in a letter to the editor complaining that "eating at the same table means social equality. ... When the white race yields social equality with the negro, it has defied the laws of God, and he will sweep them from the earth."

There were, however, a number of Americans who were especially pleased and inspired by the dinner and all that it symbolized: African Americans in the southern states. My great-grandparents Will Johnson, a sharecropper, and Annie, a homemaker, were among them. They were so taken with Roosevelt's gesture and bravery in the face of a segregated nation that they named their second son after him: Theodore Roosevelt Johnson. With this gesture, they imbued our family with a new sense of purpose -- a belief in the American Dream and in the unbounded opportunity they prayed would eventually be realized for all of us.

The first time I met President Obama was in October 2011. Military families, mine among them, were invited to attend the annual Halloween at the White House reception. In a moment eerily reminiscent of the October 1901 dinner invitation that started it all, I walked out of the Blue Room of the White House and met the president and first lady. The moment that had so inspired the great-grandparents I'd never met was reenacted by their great-grandson, Theodore Roosevelt Johnson III. And this time, the president was a black man - a reality even Will and Annie Johnson would scarcely have been able to imagine.

The following March, I had the opportunity to meet President Obama again and reflect even more deeply on my family's history. Starting out on foot from the Department of Energy, where I was a White House Fellow, I crossed Independence Avenue. To my immediate right was the National Museum of African Art, home to the largest collection of African art in the country.

Like most African Americans, I cannot trace my lineage back to any particular African nation. But thanks to our family's oral tradition, kept alive by my recently deceased grandmother, I know I am descended from an African slave named Kincey who most probably passed through the very active slave port of Saint Augustine, Florida. Kincey was sold to a plantation owner in Lamont, Florida, and married a biracial woman of African and American Indian heritage.

As I turned and looked ahead, the headquarters of the Smithsonian Institution stood directly in front of me. Affectionately called the "Castle," the building has a red sandstone exterior that stands out among the paler edifices on the National Mall. Just two months ago, an anthropologist discovered that this sandstone came from the Seneca Quarry in Montgomery County, Maryland, where blacks mined alongside the Irish after the Civil War. The sandstone used for the Castle was excavated by slaves who once belonged to America's founding first lady, Martha Washington.

I was born 10 miles from the Seneca Quarry and spent my earliest years in the D.C. suburb of Gaithersburg, where my parents worked for IBM. As it happens, my great-grandfather Will Johnson -- the same one who gave our family the 26th president's name -- was a biracial child, half-Irish and half-black. To this day, over a hundred years later, African Americans with hazel-green eyes and strawberry-blondish hair can be spotted among my uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, whenever my family gathers.

Passing the Castle, I made a left on Jefferson Drive and proceeded along the National Mall towards the Washington Monument. In taking this route, I most likely covered the same steps that chain gangs of slaves for sale once walked as they were paraded through downtown Washington, a routine occurrence in the 1840s.

Turning right on 15th Street, I headed north towards the White House. Not far along, on the right-hand side, is a memorial for the famed Union general William Tecumseh Sherman. He was unapologetic in his view that black people were inferior to whites. But as his military campaigns marched through the South, he freed all the blacks he encountered. Contemplating what to do with these newly freed men, he met with black Baptist ministers. In the end, he decided to issue Special Field Order 15, which provided each freed family with a 40-acre plot in a swath of coastal land from South Carolina to Florida.

My grandfather Theodore Roosevelt Johnson Sr. was also a Baptist minister. He grew up in the tobacco and cotton country of rural South Carolina, the grandson of an Irish man and a black woman. He went on to marry my grandmother Louisa, the child of a Trinidadian immigrant. The American melting pot was brewing, even then.

I never met that grandfather, the man whose named was passed down to me. Two years before I was born, he gave the eulogy for a recently deceased member of his congregation. As he concluded, he stood tall in his church, raised his hand to the sky, and said these haunting last words: "I'll see you on the other side." He then promptly sat down in his chair and died, right there in his very own bully pulpit.

Soon after passing the Sherman monument, I arrived at the White House grounds for the meeting with President Obama and the other White House Fellows. We began in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and moved on through the West Wing of the White House to the Oval Office. While there, he discussed some of the office's artifacts and history, and then led us to the door in the Oval Office that opens to his private study.

On the other side of the door was a picture of President Theodore Roosevelt. After Obama explained how the picture was sent to him, a classmate mentioned that I had been named after our 26th President. I shared my family's story and spoke my great-grandparents' names as proudly as I could, there in the Oval Office, believing they watched from the heavens.

Our visit came to an end and I left the Oval Office, pausing just outside the door. On the other side of the hallway, I stared into the Roosevelt Room - at another picture of Theodore Roosevelt. It was there, on the other side of the hallway from the president's office that I thought back to my grandfather's final words, and they took on the chilling quality of a prophecy: "I'll see you on the other side."

I walked out of the White House, conscious that I was wearing the uniform of the same Navy where Teddy Roosevelt served as an Assistant Secretary, and that I was a graduate of the alma maters of Booker T. Washington and Roosevelt -- Hampton and Harvard Universities.

In one spring afternoon, I'd retraced my family's entire American journey. Beginning at Independence Avenue, I'd glimpsed our African past, moved through our history of slavery and segregation, and ended at the White House, where I fulfilled my great-grandparents' American dream - the one encapsulated in the name they passed down to me. It was a dream that the offspring of slaves would one day enjoy the full benefits of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Here I was, Theodore Roosevelt Johnson III -- the family name emancipated at last.

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Theodore R. Johnson is a writer and naval officer. He has served as a military professor at the Naval War College and as a 2011 – 2012 White House Fellow. 

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