A photo in the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division (known colloquially around the institution as P & P) shows white men in formal attire, sitting row upon row at tables, apparently waiting to be served. The caption, which came to us with the photo itself, is “’Possum’ dinner tendered to President-elect William Howard Taft by the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, January 15, 1909.” The men, apparently, are waiting to be served “A ‘Possum Crisp and Brown” with the president elect. Whether you’re interested in possums or politics, researching the background of this incident can reveal fascinating aspects of American culture.
My last two possum posts begin to explore this background. We’ve seen, for example, that possum was a favorite meal for both Black and white southerners, but favored more by African Americans, who even adopted it as a preferred entrée for festive meals such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. We’ve also seen that several Presidents had relationships with possums. One of these, Benjamin Harrison, bears further investigation for the light it sheds on Taft’s “‘Possum Feast.”
Benjamin Harrison and Opossums
In a previous post, we looked at the reports, especially from the Presidential Pet Museum, that President Benjamin Harrison had two pet opossums named “Mr. Reciprocity” and “Mr. Protection.” But did he really? As I mentioned back in that post, while I found evidence to corroborate that Harrison did indeed receive two opossums, and that they were in fact named “Mr. Reciprocity” and “Mr. Protection,” I was unable to confirm the Presidential Pet Museum’s claim that “These two opossums were well-loved by the Harrison family and could often be seen running around the White House.” The Pet Museum also claims:
Harrison gifted the two opossums to his grandchildren, but he is clearly the one who gave the marsupials their weighty names as at the time, the platform of the Republican party was: “Protection and reciprocity are twin measures of Republican policy and go hand-in-hand.”
But in fact, as we saw in contemporary news accounts, the opossums were named by the people who gave them to Harrison, not by the President himself; they arrived at the white house wearing ribbons that bore their names. If the Presidential Pet Museum is wrong about who named them, why couldn’t they be wrong about the rest? In short, I think it’s far more likely that Harrison’s search for possums, and the gift of possums that he eventually received, were motivated by a different goal: a tasty meal.
Keep in mind whom the President asked to procure the animals for him: by all accounts, it was Jeremiah “Uncle Jerry” Rusk, a former Congressman and Governor of Wisconsin, who had recently come to Washington to take up the newly-created post of Secretary of Agriculture. Why Rusk? As a native of Ohio who lived most of his life in Wisconsin, he was hardly likely to be a possum expert; in his lifetime opossums were mostly confined to the South. However, there is at least one reason Rusk was an appropriate person to put in charge of this task: especially in those days before the FDA, the Secretary of Agriculture was the President’s highest officer in charge of food.
There’s also a second fact suggesting that President Harrison intended to eat the possums rather than adopt them: reports at the time specifically stated that he requested “two good ‘possums as soon as frost set in.” There’s no obvious reason why one would want opossum pets at that specific time of year. As I pointed out in a previous post, though, eating possum was associated with fall and winter, and specifically with Christmas and Thanksgiving. In fact, John James Audubon even specified that opossums were hunted “when one or two slight white frosts have tinged the fields and woods with a yellowish hue,” in other words, as soon as frost set in. And although Harrison actually received the opossums in June, it wasn’t uncommon for possums to be kept and fattened for weeks before they were eaten. So when Harrison asked for “two good ‘possums as soon as frost set in,” was he looking for an addition to his Thanksgiving table?
The idea is not at all farfetched. In fact, a little more research reveals that on his White House staff, Harrison had a steward who was well known for keeping, fattening, and cooking possums. Jeremiah Smith, coincidentally also known as “Uncle Jerry,” and sometimes more tellingly as “Possum Jerry,” had several times appeared in news accounts, once when an opossum was stolen before it could be cooked, and another time when he was fattening several opossums for the President’s private secretary, Elijah Walker Halford.
On Christmas Day, 1891, the Evening Star reported about the White House’s Christmas celebration, and Jerry’s love of possums was apparently common knowledge:
All the servants took part in the celebration, and Benjamin and Mary had a present for them. Jerry, who is the light comedian of the mansion, kept up his reputation for fun and caused the President to utter the only apology he will have to make today. When Jerry wished him the compliments of the season the President told him how much he regretted not being able to present to him his favorite delicacy, a ‘possum, and, amid roars of laughter, Jerry responded that he had nothing agin’ a turkey.
Note that it was the following year that President Harrison asked Jerry Rusk to supply some opossums in time for first frost, suggesting that he might even have been contemplating a gift or a meal for his faithful staff member Jerry rather than for himself.
Finally, I’ll point out that the understanding at the time was certainly that the President would eat the opossums, not adopt them. Those newspapers that mention any reason for the President’s request for two opossums treat it as a given that the animals would end up cooked and eaten at a White House dinner. The Richmond Times, for example, wrote:
Two zealous Republicans of Maryland have sent President Harrison a couple of young possums for him to keep until frost, and then eat. Wonder if they are not young shoats. Dollars to doughnuts that President Harrison doesn’t know the difference between a shoat and a possum any more than he did between a ‘coon and old Gilbert Wootton’s hog down on the James River. Uncle Jerry Rusk will undoubtedly have to be called in to solve this semi-agricultural problem.
The Hickman (Kentucky) Courier suggested a political reason for Harrison’s sudden craving for ‘possum, which I believe has implications for the next few presidents we will discuss as well. Their account of the incident was as follows:
President Harrison recently expressed a desire for a ‘possum. Although Mr. Harrison is not much of a humorist, the circumstances under which this wish was expressed would have justified the belief that the remark was only a bit of pleasantry. The wishes of a president, however, are commands to the office seekers; and the publication of the remark brought a quick response. Some Maryland republican sent to the president by express two young ‘possums, with red, white and blue ribbons about their necks, one marked “Protection” and the other “Reciprocity.”
This is supposed to have been a master stroke of political management. It is accepted as an advertisement of the fact that Mr. Harrison is fond of ‘possum, and this is expected to be worth many voles to him. Every darky’s heart is expected to thrill with admiration when he learns that the republican candidate for the presidency is fond of ‘possum. To be sure, the colored troops have been fighting nobly in the republican column all along, but it seems that something is now deemed necessary to rouse their enthusiasm. There have been many murmurs of discontent lately. Prof. Langston has declared that no self-respecting colored man can vote for Harrison, and such a declaration might have its effect, unless counteracted. But when the president orders ‘possum and sweet potatoes every negro voter is expected to forget all grounds of disaffection and come cheerfully to the support of the ticket.
I still can’t say for certain that Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection ended up on the dinner table. If President Harrison did adopt them as pets and give them to his grandchildren, as the Presidential Pet Museum states, it wouldn’t be the first or last time that animals bought or given away as food ended up as pets instead. But it seems clear that Benjamin Harrison was not opposed to eating possum, and almost equally clear that the two he received in 1892, cute names notwithstanding, were intended as a meal.
Most importantly, let’s note three things. First, Harrison’s willingness to eat possum. Second, a perception in his own time that he was using the food to signal an affinity for African American culture and thus encourage the Black vote to turn out for him. And third, his employment of Jeremiah Smith as a possum wrangler. All these facts have implications for another President who received fancifully-named opossums as a gift and who might have eaten them. That president was none other than Theodore Roosevelt.
Theodore Roosevelt and Opossums
As far as I can discern, Theodore Roosevelt’s most famous encounter with opossums occurred as a result of one of his most symbolically important acts as President: on October 16, 1901, he invited his friend and adviser Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House. Although Roosevelt’s beliefs about race were complicated, and even backward by today’s standards, for the time he was very progressive. He believed that the most capable and educated Black citizens were worthy of all the rights and privileges of their white counterparts, including a place at the White House table. Washington, then a distinguished professor and the president of the Tuskegee Institute, certainly qualified as a worthy dinner companion for the President—or so Roosevelt thought.
While African Americans and Northern newspapers generally agreed, the South most certainly did not. Roosevelt was accused of being immoral, insensitive to the South, and politically suicidal. He was called a “simpering negrophilist” and accused of an “affront to the white race.” Perhaps the most over-the-top reaction came from the Memphis Scimitar, which (as reported by the Richmond Times) stated:
The most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States was committed yesterday by the President, when he invited a n—– to dine with him at the White House.
No murder, no treason, no arson or rape, apparently, was as bad as allowing a Black professor to have dinner in the White House.
This dinner had many long-lasting repercussions, more important than anything to do with opossums. However, since this blog is about folklore of the opossum, we must follow the possum path. I’ll first note that several papers reported, perhaps facetiously, that Roosevelt and Washington had dined on possum-n-taters, the dish so beloved of Southerners, and especially African American Southerners. So the Iola (Kansas) Register reported:
And now the Lily White Republicans of Louisiana are raising the devil because President Roosevelt ate some sweet taters an’ possum with Booker T. Washington at the kitchen table in the White House. It’s a small thing to raise such a fuss about and it won’t do the Lily Whites any good in the long run.
Whatever happens this is not our funeral. Out in the cold as we may be—shivering as we are and hungry, yea verily and thirsty—yet as we stand around the White House and look in through the windows and see Teddy and Booker hobnobbing over the possum and potatoes, not one of us is disposed to envy either of them or to exclaim of either, “Wouldn’t it be bully to be him?” We prefer to take our chances of the future. We had rather wait till our time comes. Somehow the look ahead does not seem so hopeless nor the distance so long. For there is here a radical infirmity of judgment, a plain lack of common sense, and bless the Lord we are not in it.”
I’ll note here that it doesn’t really seem likely that the President and Booker Washington ate possum. Instead, these papers were facetiously suggesting that if you invited a Black person to the White House, you would naturally serve him possum-n-taters, the delicacy his community valued most. So these references tell us much more about attitudes toward the dish and toward its racial overtones than about the meal actually eaten that fateful evening.
What happened next was equally telling. In addition to the death threats, congratulations, hate mail, thank you notes, and news coverage that showered both Roosevelt and Washington, the President received a particularly interesting anonymous package containing an opossum labeled “Booker Washington.”
Many newspapers reported the President’s intention to eat the animal. The Washington Times reported:
Mr Roosevelt has received by express from an anonymous donor somewhere in the South a large fat possum. The possum is alive although like the rest of his kind he is fond of playing dead when approached. The giver attached a label to the box Indicating that the animal’s name is Booker Washington. Henry Pinckney, the President’s steward, is a South Carolinian and understands the art of cooking possum in savory style. Unless there should be a definite objection from Mr. Roosevelt, Pinckney will cook the possum for the President’s table. President Roosevelt is said to be fond of the classic Southern dish of possum and taters.
Similarly, the Columbia (Tennessee) Herald reported:
President Roosevelt is in receipt of a big. fat ‘possum from some point in the South. The ‘possum is labelled “Booker Washington.” The President has decided to eat “Booker Washington” as well as eat with the original.
Although no one knew who sent the anonymous package, some papers speculated that it was sent by white detractors interested in mocking the President and his dinner guest. So the Fort Mill Times noted:
The most outrageous of all ‘Southern outrages’ has been committed,” says an exchange. “From somewhere in ‘the sparsely settled ex-Confederate section’ there has come to President Roosevelt a fat ‘possum labeled ‘Booker Washington.’ Evidently the white people of the States lately in rebellion are hatching a period of re-Reconstruction.
However, elsewhere, including Edmund Morris’s biography Theodore Rex, I’ve seen it reported that the possum was sent to the President by Black admirers. According to Morris, Roosevelt “dutifully announced that he would wait until “the first frosty day” before eating his critter, “well browned, and with sweet potatoes on the side.”
As in the case of Benjamin Harrison, some newspapers at the time suggested that eating the ‘possum was a stunt through which Roosevelt expected to solidify the Black vote. So for example, the Evening Star opined:
The Fact that president Roosevelt dined on a ‘possum ought to permanently solidify the colored vote for him.
In fact, of course, his action in inviting Booker Washington to dinner in itself probably secured the Black vote, ‘possum or not. But certainly, turning his nose up at the delicacy wouldn’t have done him any good with African Americans at the time. So, whether eating the animal gained Roosevelt any support is unknown, but there were some at the time who claimed that it did.
Recall that Audubon specified that possums were typically eaten “when one or two slight white frosts have tinged the fields and woods with a yellowish hue.” This accords well with Roosevelt’s promise to eat the possum on “the first frosty day.” It also corresponds to the time of year when Benjamin Harrison had wished to receive his two fine possums. Clearly, both presidents were drawing from the same playbook, which went back to longstanding cultural traditions surrounding possum feasts.
It seems likely that this shared knowledge about how and when to properly eat ‘possum came from the same venerable staff member. For although Henry Pinckney might have been Roosevelt’s steward, “Possum Jerry,” Harrison’s opossum expert, spent his last years (including 1901) as a favorite member of Roosevelt’s staff. A seemingly comical incident from 1903 found Smith, hampered by failing eyesight, hoisting the official White House flag upside-down. But the gaffe portended more serious things, and soon after, Smith retired in failing health. Roosevelt remained affectionate toward the elderly staffer, and in the last weeks before Smith’s death, Roosevelt went so far as to visit the old man personally in his home. Newspapers reported that the visit buoyed Smith’s spirits and probably prolonged his life.
Between Jeremiah Smith’s retirement and his death fell Christmas 1903, and according to the papers, Roosevelt dutifully sent his trusty employee a Christmas turkey at his home. History doesn’t record whether Roosevelt, like Harrison years before, apologized that it wasn’t a ‘possum.
Taft and the “‘Possum Feast”
So where does this leave us in our exploration of President-Elect Taft and his possum feast? Let’s begin with an account of the feast itself: First of all, let’s remember that Taft served in both the Harrison and Roosevelt administrations, and that he was Roosevelt’s Secretary of War and his chosen successor. It’s inconceivable that he didn’t understand both the regional and racial implications of eating ‘possum after the news coverage of Harrison’s possum incident and Roosevelt’s experiences with the Booker Washington visit. Therefore, most commentators assume that Taft was making both an overt gesture to the South as a region and a covert gesture to African Americans specifically, when he requested a possum-n-taters dinner in Atlanta. As the Topeka Journal explained, the possum feast was planned after Taft specifically requested the dish:
When a delegation of prominent Atlantans called upon Mr. Taft a few days ago in Augusta to arrange the details of his visit to this city, the spokesman courteously asked the next occupant of the White House if he had any suggestions to offer relative to the preparations for the banquet. Just one, smilingly replied the big Ohioan. “I have had a lifetime longing to taste ‘possum and ‘taters.’ My visit to the south would be incomplete unless this wish is realized.”
Mr. Taft’s wish will be gratified and there will be ‘possum and “taters” enough and to spare for the more than 600 guests of the evening. Southerners are traditionally partial to this dish and it may be said that when the president elect announced his desire for the favorite dish he but further endeared himself to the people of this section and it is confidently predicted that he will experience an even more kindly feeling toward the south after he has partaken of the juicy meat and Georgia yams.
Taft’s request for a possum supper, and the supper itself, including its attendant speeches, were a kind of political theater. Taft, the Northern president-elect, acted out solidarity with both white and Black Southerners by eating a delicacy loved by both, but particularly favored by Black folks. The delicacy, as in wealthy southern homes, was prepared for and served to the white attendees by Black servants.
The servants themselves acted out extreme versions of their usual roles. The Washington Herald revealed that several cooks had been brought to Atlanta to prepare the possums, all of them elderly African Americans from rural plantations. The most senior of these were described, again by the Herald, as “old Uncle Levi and two mammies,” and as “the busiest people in the world” during the preparation for the feast, with Levi “complaining of a mighty lame ‘ahm’” when the cooking was over.
The Topeka State Journal further described the service, which was clearly orchestrated for dramatic effect:
When the time for the serving of the course of ‘possum and ‘taters and ‘Simmon beer was reached, the orchestra, screened by ferns and potted plants, in the gallery, struck up the stirring strains of Sousa’s “Georgia Camp Meeting,” while down the center aisle and headed directly for Judge Taft, there came a waiter who fairly staggered under the weight of the choicest ‘possum of the very choice one hundred, dressed whole and properly garnished with rich golden Georgia yams, and followed by another waiter with a flagon of persimmon beer. Up the speaker’s table marched the grinning darkeys, amid an uproar of laughter, in which the president-elect joined until his face was flooded with color.
While the waiters placed their knives on the Beast, the Rev. Dr. J W. Lee, a Methodist minister, sang that old negro song “Carve Him to de Heart.”
The possum meal, clearly, had a racial significance that was understood by all present, but articulated mainly in actions rather than words. The dish was appreciated by all, but when white and Black Georgians were together, it was cooked and served by hard-working but (apparently) cheerful Black people, sung about in African American dialect, then devoured by tuxedo-clad white men.
The meal was not the only aspect of the visit with unspoken significance for race relations. Taft made two widely reported speeches, one to the banquet guests, who were white, and one to Atlanta’s Black residents. The speech to Black residents was a pep talk, telling African Americans that education and self-betterment were the ways out of poverty. It offered encouragement and friendly words, but no promises of any material help.
Of the speech to the white audience at the banquet, the Topeka Journal reported:
When the president-elect declared that he proposed to select for federal officers in the south, as well as in other sections of the country, “those whose character and reputation and standing in the community commend them to their fellow citizens as persons qualified and able to discharge their duties well, and whose presence in important positions will remove, if any such thing exists, the sense of alienism in the government which they represent,” the banqueters, composed of leading citizens from every state south of Mason and Dixon’s line. Jumped to their feet and for several minutes it was impossible for Mr. Taft to proceed.
Why did Taft get a standing ovation for the mundane promise to appoint to federal offices people with “reputation and standing in the community?” Because at that time, the Southern establishment was nervous about the federal government imposing federal standards in place of established state or local standards. Part of this was concern over Northerners being appointed to federal office in the South. Having “reputation and standing” in the white, southern community meant upholding Southern standards, which at that time generally meant holding segregationist views. Taft was promising not to appoint people who would, for example, insist on enforcing the federal Civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1871, and 1875. Instead, he would appoint people comfortable with local norms, including greater segregation and inequality than was allowed under federal law.
Above all, the banquet speech was a coded promise not to appoint Black people. The press at the time understood this, with the Baltimore Sun observing:
If the statement which we quote above means that in making appointments to the office in the south, Mr.Taft will not select men whose presence in official positions would be objectionable to the great majority of the white people of that section, we think it is not an unreasonable conclusion that Mr. Taft will appoint no negroes to important offices in the southern states. He does not say this in so many words, but we believe that this is the interpretation of his language which will prevail in the south.
In the context of this speech, as well as Taft’s more general speech to the Black community, the possum feast can be seen as a drama intended to create a fiction of harmony among Black and white, North and South, with the usual tensions and inequalities of the Reconstruction era lurking beneath the surface.
We’ll return to Taft and the opossum in a future blog post on the strange case of “Billy Possum.” But for the moment, let me comment on one more sharp divide hiding in P & P’s picture of the possum feast. Although a careful reading of the newspapers of the time will tell you that the menu consisted of the central plate of possum-n-taters, as well as turkey, quail, and sliced watermelon, there’s another fruit clearly in evidence on the tables in photos of the event—a fruit that’s never mentioned in the press accounts.
And this brings us to a controversial question, which you’re invited to answer in the comments below:
Does pineapple belong on possum?
Note on Sources and Language
In transcribing material written in African American dialect, by both black and white authors, my policy has been to render the spelling exactly as the authors did. This pertains to poetry, song lyrics, and the like. I have also retained some offensive language, especially words for African Americans, when I felt that abbreviating them would be unclear. However, I have decided to render the so-called “n-word” as “n—–” to avoid offending or hurting readers. In all cases where I have so edited the n-word, the original document is online at the Library of Congress.
Because the word opossum is pronounced “possum” in most dialects of English, and spelled “possum” by many writers, I use both spellings.