Jacob Riis’s career-long “battle with the slum” was aided through acquaintances and friendships with political and affluent allies—the most powerful being Theodore Roosevelt. Their deep friendship began in 1895 when then Police Commissioner Roosevelt sought out Riis in his newspaper office across from police headquarters on Mulberry Street. Riis took the commissioner on a series of nighttime forays into the slums and used the relationship to make recommendations for reform of the police and health departments, many of which Roosevelt embraced. Over time their bond strengthened, even after Roosevelt left the city to climb the rungs from a state to a national political career. The two men supported each other publicly—artfully using the media to enhance their mutual reputations.
Theodore Roosevelt and Jacob Riis remained close friends during Roosevelt’s climb to the White House. In March 1901, Roosevelt penned an article for McClure’s Magazine, dubbing Riis “the most useful citizen of New York.” He observed that “There are certain qualities a reformer must have if he is to be a real reformer. . . . He must possess high courage, disinterested desire to do good, and sane, wholesome common sense. These qualities he must have; and it is further much to his benefit if he also possesses a sound sense of humor. All four traits are possessed by Jacob Riis.” The admiration was mutual. Riis’s 1904 campaign biography Theodore Roosevelt the Citizen, extolled the president’s virtues: “it was when that same strong will, that honest endeavor, to see right and justice done to his poorer brothers—it was when they joined in the battle with the slum that all my dreams came true, all my ideals became real.”
A Ten Years’ War
Riis reviewed his decade of reform, which began in 1890, in his book A Ten Years’ War (1900). He called the two years (1895–1897) he worked actively with Roosevelt crusading against police corruption and housing conditions in New York City “the happiest by far” of his time as a reformer. When Roosevelt became governor of New York (January 1899 to January 1901), Riis encouraged him to improve the standards of state factory inspection. Roosevelt’s letters to Riis mention social worker James Bronson Reynolds and child-labor reform advocate and seasoned factory inspector Florence Kelley, both important allies in improving factory inspection at the state and national levels.
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Jacob Riis. A Ten Years’ War, An Account of the Battle with the Slum in New York. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1900. Page 2. Shapiro Rogers Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (095.00.00)
Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) to Jacob Riis, February 17, 1900. Typescript letter. Theodore Roosevelt Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (094.00.00)
Theodore Roosevelt to Jacob Riis, May 2, 1900. Photostatic copy of typescript letter. Theodore Roosevelt Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (093.00.00)
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A Hospital for Children
In the early 1900s, tuberculosis was the second leading cause of death in New York City, disproportionately affecting the urban poor. For five years, Riis incessantly lobbied to build a seaside hospital for tubercular children on land in Far Rockaway, Queens, New York. Louise Carnegie, wife of New York industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, read Riis’s 1906 article about the plight of these ill children and his campaign to raise funds and sent Riis a warm note and a $10,000 check. The project, however, met continued resistance from private developers and politicians. After five years without progress, Andrew Carnegie wrote Riis this brusque note: “Mrs. Carnegie . . . has made a contribution and before more is askt [sic] we should hav [sic] a statement of the present conditions of the institution, especially a list of subscribers and amounts given so far.” Though Riis’s initial efforts for a facility were unsuccessful, New York’s first public hospital for treatment of tuberculosis opened on Staten Island in 1913.
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Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919) to Jacob Riis, December 26, 1911. Typescript letter with handwritten note. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (016.00.00)
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Booker T. Washington and Tuskegee Institute
In 1901, the year that both Jacob Riis and Booker T. Washington published important autobiographies (The Making of an American and Up From Slavery), Washington suggested that Riis accompany Vice President Theodore Roosevelt on a trip South to visit Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The trip was tentatively set for November but was cancelled when President William McKinley was assassinated in September, unexpectedly launching Roosevelt into the presidency. The trio remained in touch. Shortly after taking office, Roosevelt famously welcomed the African American leader to dinner at the White House. Riis guided Washington on a tour of the Lower East Side in 1904, and finally visited Tuskegee himself in 1905, writing home enthusiastically to his wife about the experience.
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Jacob Riis to Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), April 11, 1902. Manuscript letter. Booker T. Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (097.00.00)
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Friends in High Places
Riis’s longstanding friendship with Roosevelt placed the reformer among those in the president’s inner circle. The magazine of political satire and humor, Puck, parodied the reaction of Roosevelt’s allies, cabinet members, and White House guests to the end of his presidency. In the image above, President Theodore Roosevelt stands at the center with his successor William H. Taft and a gathering of his “officers.” Riis appears as a colonial army officer with a handkerchief to his eyes (second from the left), while Attorney General Charles J. Bonaparte is Napoleon, Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute founder Booker T. Washington stands in the doorway, and naturalist John Burroughs towers in frontier costume. Everyone, except Roosevelt, is crying.
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Jacob Riis. “The Making of an American,” handwritten lecture notes. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (019.00.08)
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