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Port: Teddy Roosevelt was a racist, but that's far from all he was

When we honor history, let's honor all of it, not just the parts that fit the politics of the moment.

The statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback alongside an American Indian and African American has drawn controversy as a symbol of colonialism and will be removed from display in front of New York's American Museum of Natural History. edwardhblake via Wikimedia Commons

MINOT, N.D. — If we were to engage in some endeavor to illuminate the history of the Five Tribes, who were pushed by white colonists from their homes in the southeast part of America out west to what is now Oklahoma, would we dwell on their history of owning other human beings?

The Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole tribes all engaged in chattel slavery.

They did so even after the practice was made illegal by the 13th amendment. Treaties had to be signed with the tribes that included the outlaw of slavery .


Still, that ugly chapter in the history of those peoples is not what defines them. They were slavemasters for a time, yes, but it was a part of their efforts to live as "civilized" tribes, which was a euphemism for living like the white people who, at the time, also held slaves (and who also put these tribes on the "Trail of Tears" to Oklahoma).


History is complicated. When it is a story told correctly, few people, and fewer groups of people, emerge without some stains.

Consider the debate over former President Theodore Roosevelt that has been ignited by the decision to bring a controversial statue honoring him from New York to Medora, North Dakota, where a library honoring the man is being built.

The equestrian edifice has an archaic composition that shows Roosevelt flanked on each side by a Native American and Black man in seeming supplication.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York doesn't want to display the statue anymore. They've agreed to loan it to North Dakota where it can be displayed with some appropriate context. The organizers behind the Roosevelt library have made it clear they will consult with Native American communities on how to provide that context.

Native American chiefs at Theodore Roosevelt's March 4, 1905, Inaugural parade. The photo by Edward Curtis was taken on the White House grounds immediately after the parade, in which 35,000 people marched and the six Native American leaders rode on horseback. Left to right: Quanah Parker (Comanche), Buckskin Charlie (Ute), American Horse (Sioux), Little Plume (Blackfeet), Hollow Horn Bear (Sioux), Geronimo (Apache). In its 2013 exhibit on this event, the National Museum of the Native American said the men rode in the parade “in order to raise the profile of Indians in American society, to advocate for the welfare of their people, and to gain an audience with the President.” After the inaugural parade, the Native American leaders were granted an audience with President Roosevelt. Contributed / National Park Service / Sagamore Hill

But much of this debate focuses on some ugly things Roosevelt said and did with regard to our Native American friends.

Those things are true.


Let's consider some other things, too.

Roosevelt was the first American president to invite a Black American to dinner at the White House, hosting his adviser Booker T. Washington . “The only wise and honorable and Christian thing to do is to treat each Black man and each white man strictly on his merits as a man, giving him no more and no less than he shows himself worthy to have,” Roosevelt wrote of the event.

When racist mobs in Mississippi threatened Postmaster Minne Cox, the first Black woman ever appointed to that position, Roosevelt halted their mail service in retribution .

I wish that Roosevelt, who I admire, didn't subscribe to the typically racist views of white Americans of his era, but he did .

It's a truth we shouldn't ignore, but it's also not the sum total of Roosevelt's legacy.

When we honor history, let's honor all of it, not just the parts that fit the politics of the moment.

To comment on this article, visit

Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .


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Rob Port

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Rob Port

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