A Filipino in the White House | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

A Filipino in the White House

/ 04:07 AM February 17, 2021

Taft and Harrison are the important Manila streets that have withstood renaming by thoughtless local and national legislation. Having served as governors-general of the Philippines: Taft from 1901 to 1903 and Harrison from 1913 to 1921, they are fair game in the anti-colonial rewriting of street names. But looking at their lives after they left Malacañang, William Howard Taft (1857-1930) rose to become 27th president (1909-1913) and 10th chief justice of the United States (1921-1930). Francis Burton Harrison (1873-1957), more attached to the Philippines, served as special adviser to Presidents Manuel L. Quezon, Sergio Osmeña, Manuel Roxas, and Elpidio Quirino.

It’s a pity that Harrison is best remembered today for a busy Manila street rather than the role he played in shaping Philippine history for better and for worse. During his term, Harrison started the irreversible trend in the Filipinization of the bureaucracy. Of course, Harrison was not liked by Americans in the Philippines who had to give up their positions to qualified Filipinos. Considered a good friend to Filipinos, Harrison is the only American governor-general awarded Philippine citizenship. Following his last wishes, Harrison was buried in the Manila North Cemetery.

Less remembered in textbook history is the man who appointed Harrison to the job, Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States from 1913 to 1921. Wilson’s post-White House home is now a museum that preserves an early work of Guillermo Tolentino, National Artist for Sculpture. I sought out the actual work, “Pax” (Peace), and saw it in the former president’s bedroom in Wilson House. Since I first wrote about it in 2000, more research has been undertaken by Titchie and Erwin Tiongson, who run a blog and FB Page on Filipiniana in their part of the world called Philippines on the Potomac. They recently shared with me letters from Guillermo Tolentino with Edith Bolling Wilson (Mrs. Woodrow Wilson) that were misfiled in the Library of Congress because of the misspelling of Tolentino’s name. Mrs. Wilson and Tolentino corresponded from 1919 to 1957, the year of Wilson’s last letter preserved by Tolentino’s daughter, Marikit Imson.


The remarkable story of Tolentino’s meeting with Wilson in the White House is worth retelling. While he was already set on a career making monuments and mausoleums, Tolentino aspired to become a classical sculptor trained in Europe. His first stop was the US, arriving in Washington, DC, in the spring of 1919 with only $7 in his pocket. He was provided with a letter of introduction from Alfredo Roa, secretary to Philippine Resident Commissioner Teodoro Yangco, to a Filipino who was working in Old Pierce’s Mill, a Rock Creek Park restaurant. Tolentino was offered a job as a waiter and dishwasher by Florence Blake, and he saved $3 that summer.


One night, Tolentino had a vision: The light from a streetlamp produced shadows on the wall of his rented room that formed the image of a woman and a child standing on a rock that was atop a German helmet. Tolentino got up, sketched the vision hurriedly, and later worked on it as a sculpture that was to become “Pax.” When it was completed, he showed it to his boss, Mrs. Blake, who remarked: “You should give it to the President of the United States.” To make this happen, Mrs. Blake arranged to introduce Tolentino to one of their regular diners, Miss Edith Benham, secretary to the First Lady.

On the appointed day, Tolentino set “Pax” on a table facing the corner where Miss Benham would sit and covered it. Nervous before the meeting, Tolentino dropped a tray full of glassware that Mrs. Blake did not deduct from his salary. Finally, when Miss Benham arrived she said: “Let’s see it. It seems that everybody is talking about it now.” Tolentino unveiled the sculpture and Miss Benham said she would arrange for Tolentino to present “Pax” to the President.

Weeks later, while sweeping the floor of the restaurant, Tolentino received an envelope from the White House with the message: “President Woodrow Wilson wishes to see you at 9 am August 18, 1919 at the Blue Room.” Three days later, Tolentino would experience the most precious five minutes of his life.

(Conclusion on Friday)

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Francis Burton Harrison, Guillermo tolentino, Looking Back, PAX, Philippine history, William Howard Taft

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