The Truth Behind the Cherry Blossoms: A First Lady’s Vision of Racial and Class Integration

A blooming Japanese cherry blossom tree in Washington, D.C.

A blooming Japanese cherry blossom tree in Washington, D.C.

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.

Cherry Blossom Chief Nellie Taft and her husband the President.

Cherry Blossom Chief Nellie Taft and her husband the President.

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.

Nellie Taft liked to surf, smoke, drink and gamble, playing cards here on a ship to Asia.

Nellie Taft liked to surf, smoke, drink and gamble, playing cards here on a ship to Asia.

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.

The Tafts in Panama.

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.

Nellie Taft famously sat next to the President on his Inaugural Day and started a tradition.

 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.

Will and Nellie Taft inspect the building of the Panama Canal – with his and her aides.

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.

With Native Americans during a celebration in Canada.

Nellie Taft with Native Americans during a celebration in Canada.

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.

Nellie Taft, standing far left, with Filipino children who benefitted from the health and nutrition program she initiated while serving as the Philippine Island's U.S. Governor-General's wife

Nellie Taft, standing far left, with Filipino children who benefitted from the health and nutrition program she initiated while serving as the Philippine Island’s U.S. Governor-General’s wife

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.

Nellie Taft in a native Filipino dress.

Nellie Taft in a native Filipino dress.

The Malacanang Palace where Nellie Taft insisted on racially-integrated social events, in defiance of the American military brass.

The Malacanang Palace where Nellie Taft insisted on racially-integrated social events, in defiance of the American military brass.

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. 

The bandstand at Luneta Park in Manila.

The bandstand at Luneta Park in Manila.

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 in the era Nellie Taft first enjoyed it.

Luneta Park in the era Nellie Taft first enjoyed it.

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.

The First Lady out driving with a friend.

The First Lady out driving with a friend.

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.

A rendering of Mrs. Taft's planned Democracy Park.

A rendering of Mrs. Taft’s planned Democracy Park.

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 Tafts (red circle) in their open car pull down to the first concert.

The Tafts (red circle) in their open car pull down to the first concert.

Walter Loving.

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.

Nellie Taft felt self-conscious about the speech impediment which resulted from her stroke.

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.

An Easter postcard depicting a woman vaguely resembling Nellie Taft at a blooming cherry blossom tree.

An Easter postcard depicting  a woman seemingly intended to represent Nellie Taft at a blooming cherry blossom tree.

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.

Nellie Taft and Iwa Chinda used ceremonial shovels to break ground for the first two of what would establish the current cherry blossom grove on March 27, 1912.

Nellie Taft and Iwa Chinda used ceremonial shovels to break ground for the first two of what would establish the current cherry blossom grove on March 27, 1912.

The original tree planted by Mrs. Taft still stands, near the stone Japanese lantern, seen at far left.

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.

Will and Nellie Taft are buried just across the Potomac River from the grove of cherry blossoms.

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.

Michelle Obama plants cherry blossom tree on the centennial of the day Nellie Taft did so (Kyodo News)



Categories: First Ladies, Politics, The Tafts

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10 replies »

  1. I loved the detail of the color of the letters. Such a classy touch!

  2. I so enjoy these articles. I wish Carl Anthony would revise the second book of Presidential First Ladies. No other book brings the lives of these wonderful ladies into the perspective of where they were when.
    Thanks

    • Mary Lou – thank you so much for writing and leaving a comment here. Greatly appreciated. I think that someday, still some distance in the future, I will likely do a volume 3, perhaps just after the presidential inauguration in the year 2025, a 35 year period which, at the minimum, would cover five First Ladies, meaning Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama and potentially Mrs. Obama through 2017 Inaugural, then whoever the next First Lady or First Gent would be, potentially for eight years, through 2025, and finally touching on whoever’s spouse would be elected in the year 2024.

  3. I’ve had your book on Nellie Taft on my list for a while, you’ve just given me more impetus to give it more priority. There is something about this period of 1890-1920 that makes it very appealing to Bohemians of all stripes/ages.

    In re to Cherry Blossoms, darn it Carl, they don’t live long enough. I am so lucky to live on a street in Philadelphia that has the same species of Cherry trees as the ones
    in DC, by the time I am in mood to get my camera out, they are gone w/the wind.

    Thanks for another great read and best wishes for a Happy Easter

    • Susanne What I love, love love so much about your posts and reactions are how rich they are with detail and information, and opinion and perspective and just plain fact! I hate to push people into writing blogs or creating websites, so I won’t…..but I think you could pull it off. Philadelphia! I was there in December – that’s when I went on Admiral Dewey’s ship and was inspired to write that article on him here – and then went to the tavern…is it the Federal Tavern? – and tasted Martha Washington’s Cherry Bounce and I think it was Ben Franklin’s turkey pot pie. I remember before moving to Washington for school that my parents took us to DC over Easter break to catch the blossoms – and they were always blown off the leaves by the time we got there. Always one of two remaining blossom trees and hundreds of touruists lining up under them and ignoring the rest!

  4. It’s interesting that we often make allowances for public figures in the past, perhaps even our own family members, when it comes to racism and cultural insensitivity. We give them somewhat of a pass, saying that they were simply a product of their times or their particular culture. But then, we have examples like Nellie Taft who was able to transcend all of that and take stands that, to most of us, seem perfectly natural and right today. It makes it a bit harder to be as sensitive to those that weren’t so enlightened. The same could be said of Lady Bird Johnson, my own favorite first lady as you know, or Queen Elizabeth II (perhaps not so much her mother!)… People who seem genuinely blind to the differences that separate us, but very aware of the similarities that unite. We could all use a bit more of that kind of blindness!

    Great article, as was the piece on the Kennedy Easter. Loved the pictures of Jackie coloring eggs. It’s fun to see how alike we all really are. In a day or two, we’ll be sitting down at our long table, early ’60′s coffee cups filled with Paas’ egg dye, and children of all ages scrambling around (or on) the table trying to get to their favorite color! It was ever thus!

    • Jake – sorry for the long delay in responding….every post-Easter I appreciate your writing. And yes, one thing I’ve learned – actually a bit chilling – is that we can’t presume is that just because someone is not given credit or celebrated or known for something, that they are – in fact – unworthy of credit or being celebrated. This has been the one eye-opening and shocking aspect of my work – how “history” is driven, in large measure, by popularity and how well sometimes narrative is shaped and sold to the public at the time they do something. In 1900 Nellie Taft – and William Howard Taft – were considered nearly radical for even accepting the idea that a non-Anglo majority nation was capable of education and eventual self-government…and then a century later have been cast as radical for assuming that the Filipinos were not ready for self-government immediately – they sort of got criticized by both extremes and also lacked the self-promotional thinking that is so necessary in politics, which Theodore Roosevelt had more than anyone. Anyway, I appreciate your observation and writing.

  5. Thank God I’ve found you!!!!!!!! I’m from Spain and I’m trying to write my first fiction book. By chance I found some information about the Cherry Blossoms in a Washington leaflet from washington.org. And finally I found someone who talks about the woman who made it possible. I want to read you slowlier, but I just wanted to thank you for your writting.

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