Chances are you never heard of a Westchester dentist named Leon Scott. Having discovered him recently, I thought he deserved mention, particularly now, during this midwinter month, when black history is traditionally celebrated.
It may be forgotten that Scott achieved 15 minutes of national fame for a critical letter he wrote to President Dwight Eisenhower. During a speech at the 1960 Republican Convention, Ike noted that he kept portraits of “four great Americans” on his office wall: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, and, to Scott’s dismay, Robert E. Lee.
In his August 1, 1960 letter to the president, Scott wrote:
I do not understand how any American can include Robert E. Lee as a person to be emulated, and why the President of the United States of America should do so is certainly beyond me.
The most outstanding thing that Robert E. Lee did, was to devote his best efforts to the destruction of the United States Government, and I am sure that you do not say that a person who tried to destroy our government is worthy of being held as one of our heroes.
Will you please tell me why you hold him in such high esteem?
Curiously, in his letter, Scott chose not to take up the moral issue of slavery and Lee’s implicit defense of the so-called peculiar institution. Nor did he reveal one salient fact about himself: He was a black American and in 1923 was elected the first president of the New Rochelle chapter of the NAACP.
Scott was born in 1897, a time when lynching was still commonplace in parts of the South. Here in Westchester, racism was, well, more subtle. Scott fiercely illuminated it.
For instance, in 1933, he led a fight against an unwritten policy to keep black citizens out of Playland Amusement Park. He testified at a hearing that the park director “had expressed the fear of racial clashes should Negroes be admitted on the beach.”
It’s important to remember that Scott’s challenge to Eisenhower was only six years after Brown v. Board of Education, five years after Emmett Till’s brutal murder, and three years after Eisenhower himself federalized the Arkansas National Guard as a means to enforce a desegregation order at Little Rock Central High School. The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were still in the future — as was Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Considered in the context of 1960 race relations, Scott’s omissions were understandable. The nation was poised to commemorate the Civil War centennial — an event that was remarkably devoted to pageantry of battle but rarely examined the sins of bondage.
In any case, Eisenhower wrote Scott back.
Eisenhower’s August 9 reply was sincere but measured. He did not address the charge that Lee was treasonous, and he avoided any direct references to the Confederacy. Instead, he emphasized that his admiration stemmed from Lee’s virtues as a selfless, inspirational leader, “one of the supremely gifted men produced by our nation.”
Eisenhower wrote that “a nation of men of Lee’s calibre [sic] would be unconquerable in spirit and soul.”
And then he wrote:
Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his…painstaking efforts to help heal the nation’s wounds once the bitter struggle was over, we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained.
The White House released the Scott-Eisenhower letters to the press. It was a big story — though Scott was sketchily identified in the news accounts as just a “New Rochelle dentist.”
Michael Birkner, a Gettysburg College history professor, highlighted the correspondence between Scott and Eisenhower in a recent tale before a C-Span audience. He argued that in the depths of the Cold War in 1960, Eisenhower’s priority was to keep the country safe from the threat of international Communism and that his publicly expressed admiration for Lee was in part a reflection of “his desire to get Americans to close ranks, not to think in sectional terms…. Talking about white supremacy, talking about slavery was not going to serve the purpose, because it would just get people agitated.”
Leon Scott sadly knew that to be true. He was a New Rochelle dentist who understood that achieving equality for all was harder than pulling teeth.
Postscript: Last year, a plaque honoring Robert E. Lee was unceremoniously removed from county-owned Lasdon Park in Katonah.
The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers.
Tell us what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.