On May 1, 1901, William McKinley, the nation’s 25th president, became the first sitting president to visit New Orleans. Seen in this photograph by John Teunisson, McKinley is speaking from the Cabildo balcony to a welcoming crowd.

Upon re-election in 1900, McKinley, a popular Republican from Ohio and a Union army Civil War veteran, set out on a train tour of the South and Southwest. And according to newspaper reports, he was well received in the South.

Arriving in New Orleans on the afternoon of May 1, the president and his wife Ida began a dizzying 24 hours filled with banquets and parades. As the Daily Picayune noted in the style of the day: “Thousands upon thousands of throats yelled a welcome, handkerchiefs waved, hats were thrown in the air.”

The next morning, Governor William Heard and Mayor Paul Capdevielle gave the president a tour of the city that included a stop at the then uptown campus of Southern University, one of the city’s four colleges for Black students. University officials greeted him warmly along with, as the Daily Picayune reported, “a thousand children dressed in their best and gay with ribbons and summer dresses.” Southern University student Ernestine Theophile gave the president an eloquent welcome. 

“The knowledge is old,” she said, “but the sublimest inspiration of the poet is blank despair from the point of the pen; that the sweetest melodies are those that have been heard only by the spirit ear of the musician; that the most beautiful pictures are those that have been seen only in the dreams of the artist. And so I know not how, in the words of men, to bid due welcome to our nation’s chief. You must read our welcome in our faces; you must know it by our numbers; you must feel it in our enthusiasm.”

From Southern, McKinley’s entourage moved on to the Cabildo where historian Alcee Fortier regaled the president with a long history of New Orleans. As cathedral bells rang, McKinley stepped to the balcony and spoke briefly to those below. From there, the president’s party embarked on a steamboat tour of the city’s riverfront. On return, they boarded carriages for a short ride to the train station. It was a moving scene for all present. 

Mrs. McKinley was so sick that the president had to lift her from the carriage and, with help from others, walk her to the train. A reporter noted “how pale, how weak” she appeared: “The populace of New Orleans, quick to understand and sympathetic to the core, appreciated every detail of that beautiful picture.” 

As McKinley boarded the train, a woman cried out, “Mr. President, if you come to New Orleans often enough you will break up the solid south.” He responded, “We are all solid for the flag.”

The president’s railroad car then boarded a ferry to cross the river to join a waiting westward bound train. 

Four months later, an anarchist shot McKinley. He died Sept. 14. 

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