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

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.

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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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