On one aspect of the Washington Establishment, there is universal agreement. Everyone loves the cherry blossoms. Annually, the trees burst in various shades of pink around the Tidal Basin at West Potomac Park. Day-tripping Pennsylvania senior citizens, members of local African-American churches driving down after Easter service, veterans wandering over from the war memorials, schoolkids in uniforms, German tourists, smoking teenage punks cutting class, people in automated wheelchairs, Daughters of the American Revolution in town for their annual convention, government electricians on lunch break, families illegally parking SUVs and running out for one picture: on any given day, all identities off humanity come together to walk beside one another, sharing a sense of hope renewed by the annual bursting of the blossoms.
That was exactly what Helen “Nellie” Taft envisioned when she created this park just six weeks upon becoming First Lady on March 4, 1909. The truth about what motivated her, however, is never discussed, perhaps because it has nothing to do with cherry blossoms.
In fact, she specifically intended to create a focal point in the capital illustrating the idea of democracy through a tangible experience that could be simultaneously shared by every type of individual without regard to race or class. Not through cherry blossoms, but music. And it was inspired by her witnessing just such a daily gathering among a mixed-race society across the globe from Washington.
There had never been a First Lady like Nellie Taft, born June 2, 1861 . After a teenage visit to the White House in 1877, she determined to live there too. Riveted by political and economic issues Miss Helen Herron hosted gatherings of civic-minded young people in her family house in Cincinnati. Among those attending was law student Will Taft, whose great ambition was to be Chief Justice. Her other life ambition was to journey the globe exploring cultures entirely unlike her own. She showed interest in people culturally different from herself early on, when she ventured into the working-class German immigrant beer halls of Cincinnati. Which also led to her lifelong love of drinking, smoking cigarettes, and gambling at cards.
Frustrated by societal and legal limitations preventing women from careers that could lead to elective national office, she practically decided to partner with Will in pursuit of what would prove her ambition for the presidency first, and then he was free to actively seek appointment to the Supreme Court. His political positions would lead them to live or make lengthy visits to countries around the world. Wherever she went, Nellie insisted on being treated as Will’s partner.
She did so famously even at his Inauguration when she insisted on sitting next to him during the ceremonial drive back to the White House, thus shattering precedent and setting the tradition of First Ladies sharing the triumphant first drive of a new President. She also did this, however, even when he was charged with overseeing construction of the Panama Canal and was assigned her own military aide.
Wherever she went, Nellie Taft also showed a singular respect for native cultures. In Canada, where the extended Taft family had a summer home, she befriended Native American tribal leaders there, who gave her tips on indigenous plantings, growing seasons and other aspects of the natural earth cycles. In Siberia, during an engine change, she broke away from the American party crossing the frozen land to dash off with a local mayor in his sleigh, and try some cherry vodka at his place. In Hawaii, she tried poi – and surfing. For a month, she lived apart from her husband and children in Japan, her life in rhythm with the chants and tolling bells of a Shinto temple.
This was not a prevailing attitude of the ruling Anglo-Saxon elite class of that era. When First Lady Edith Roosevelt joined her husband Theodore Roosevelt during his presidency on a trip to Panama, for example, she wrote about the native children there as “chocolate drops.”
It was in the Philippines, however, where Nellie Taft’s belief in racial and class integration would flourish. In 1900, Will was appointed the first political Governor-General of the U.S. government’s colonial government in the island nation, following its transfer from Spain, after the Spanish-American War. Nellie Taft showed her true colors.
It was an understatement to say that most Filipinos were outraged at the arrogance of the U.S. liberating them from Spain’s tyranny only to assume control itself, rather than grant the democratic freedom to self-government. Nellie Taft went a long way in reducing some of that feeling. She visited every province with Will, taking in performance of music with unique native instruments, eating the food specialties of each region, and joining in the ceremonial dancing. She became the first white woman to explore the remote northern Luzon territory, on horseback. She followed the native holiday rituals, learned Spanish, put her daughter in a Filipino Catholic school and wore native dresses at public events.
Most importantly, back in the capital city of Manila, where the Tafts lived in the Malachanan Palace, Nellie Taft defied the American military command, which had first controlled the Philippines, by insisting that all of events she and the Governor-General hosted would be racially-integrated, refusing to sanction segregated gatherings of any kind in the palace. Nellie wrote with especial fascination about how the majority of Manila’s population was mixed-race and mused at the irony of how anyone who was only of native or only of Spanish ancestry was not deemed as well those who had a mixed ancestry.
No where else did she find greater evidence of an inherent democratic aspect to the Filipino culture than at the late afternoon concerts held daily in the large public Luneta Park in one of two bandstands.
Luneta Park became Nellie’s favorite place in the Philippines, as she was impressed by how all people of all classes and races came together to hear the music, writing, “everybody in the world came and drove around and around the oval [drive] exchanging greetings and gossip.” The park was sparsely landscaped, intended as a grassy plaza of sorts, with a wide open greensward.
As a founder of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, music was vital to her life. All the events she hosted in the Malacanan Palace had music provided by one of two bands. One was the native Jose Rizal Band, named after a Filipino hero who had advocated independence not through revolution but a patient easing and education of the people into self-government. The other was equally important as a symbol, the Constabulary Band, created under the Taft tenure. It consisted of musicians from different regions of the islands, led by Walter H. Loving, a conductor Nellie Taft considered the best, trained at the Boston Conservatory of Music. He also happened to be African-American.
On March 4, 1909. Nellie Taft became First Lady, already having made arrangements to get a fleet of new cars for the Presidential famiy’s use, including one she drove herself. On April 1, she drove to a swampy spit of land popular with speeding motorists, known as “the Speedway.” And, then – she got an idea.
This was where she would create an American version of Luneta Park, a place where Washington D.C.’s men, women and children of the white and black elite, government bureaucracy and working-class would gather and share the experience of enjoying music.
Within hours, she decided where she wanted a bandstand built for the Marine Band to conduct the twice-weekly concerts. She was soon working with Colonel Spencer Cosby, Public Buildings and Grounds Superintendent, landscape architect George E. Burnap, and gardener George H. Brown in the design of the new park.
Hearing about the plans, a National Geographic Society board member and expert horticulturist by the name of Eliza Scidmore approached Nellie with an idea of her own. She had long tried to get planted in Washington some of the Japanese trees that bloomed cherry blossoms each spring, a vision shared by David Fairchild, a U.S. Department of Agriculture official. Nellie Taft liked the concept, having seen the blossoming trees during a springtime festival in Japan. She envisioned and ordered the cherry blossom trees to be planted in a single row as a long drive, rather than along the banks of the Potomac where Scidmore thought the water could reflect their color. By order of the First Lady, the Agriculture Department began uprooting all available cherry blossom trees that could be found around the country, sending them to Washington and transplanting them in the single row Nellie Taft wanted. Only later did she enlarge her concept from a drive lined with the cherry blossom trees into an entire park filled with them.
The trees, some reportedly blooming pink flowers, were in place by 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, April 17 when Mrs. Taft and the President drove down for the first public concert in the new “democracy park.” In her large purple-ribbon hat and black dress trimmed in white lace, Nellie “worried herself almost sick,” fearing nobody would show up. Instead, a “terrible crush” of an estimate 10,000 people were there, from all segments and levels of society. Symbolically, Mrs. Taft invited Walter Loving, the African-American conductor who led the Constabulary Band in the Philippines to conduct. Among the pieces chosen for her program of music was “Reminiscences of All Nations.”
Hearing about her trees and concert, a Japanese scientist visiting Washington met with the First Lady. She agreed to his idea of having the city of Tokyo donate some two thousand of its cherry blossom trees to her park, as a symbol of the unity between the two global powers.
And then, it seemed to all go to hell. Exactly one month to the day of her first concert, Nellie Taft’ suffered a stroke, which left her unable to speak and embarrassed to appear in public. Five months later, the initial shipment of cherry blossom trees from Japan arrived in Washington only for it to be discovered the trees were diseased, and had to be destroyed. Political antagonism with former President Theodore Roosevelt began to worsen to the point of a split with his friend plagued Will. Still relearning to speak, Nellie was unable to fully participate in their partnership and his presidency suffered as a result. Bad luck seemed to rain on Mrs. Taft’s good intentions. As the appropriately-titled and popular song of the era (a recording of which is below) suggested, Nellie had to wait ’til the sun shined:
When the sun did shine again, it blazed down on her.
By 1910, the Mayor of Tokyo promised a new shipment of trees. This time he sent three thousand. They arrived in healthy condition and were pruned and fed and kept flourishing before being planted two years later. Mrs. Taft recovered much of her speaking ability – and used it well. She got a $25,000 Congressional appropriation out of Senator Boise Penrose for new landscaping and further improvements in the park. Although the press did not attend, her big, historic moment came on March 27, 1912. That morning, the American First Lady, along with the Japanese Ambassador’s wife, Iwa Chinda, picked up ceremonial silver-plated shovels, and planted the first two of the new cherry blossom trees.
Thus, through a century of generations, Nellie Taft is remembered for the natural beauty of spring’s rebirth beneath the famous pink cloud that comes to Washington once a year – even though her reason for creating the park has been entirely forgotten or ignored.
Among the thousands of trees that have since been planted, the two from 1912 survive to this day.
The Taft and Chinda trees are near a stone Japanese lantern and marked by a plaque.
And Nellie Taft’s band concerts are still held in West Potomac Park, at the Jefferson Memorial, and all colors and creeds of people sit and join together to enjoy the free music.
And, close by, just across the Potomac from the cherry blossoms, Will and Nellie Taft rest together, buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Will was finally made Chief Justice in 1921, serving for a decade before his death. Nellie Taft continued to live in Washington until her death in 1943.
It’s unclear whether the Cherry Blossom Festival officials are aware of or eager to disseminate the truth behind the trees and, if so, shared it with Michelle Obama when she planted a new cherry blossom tree in the park on the centennial of the day Nellie Taft did.
The fact that the 2012 tree was planted by a First Lady who is the first African-American in that position, however, is the most meaningful honor of all to the spirit of Nellie Taft and her vision of what democracy could look like.
- First Lady Michelle Obama Marks the Cherry Blossom Festival Centennial (whitehouse.gov)
- Cherry blossoms a rite of spring (cnn.com)
- Cherry Blossom Bedroom, Blossom Bedroom (potterybarnkids.com)