About those 7 black presidents before Obama…
Whether we have had presidents with “one drop” of black blood or not depends on who you ask. If you ask white historians, they will tell you “no”. If you ask Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eminent black historian, he will tell you “its wishful thinking”. If you ask various Afrocentric historians, there definitely were, and any effort to say otherwise is a cover-up.
I want to take a moment to point out to my white friends how complicated the issue is. In the 1700’s, there was something called the seven-eighths rule. If you had ONE black great-grandparent, then you were black. And of course, if you were black, then you could be enslaved. So having a black great-grandparent was something most people hid to the best of their ability. Now, after the Civil War, many Southern states adopted the “One Drop Rule”. If you couldn’t prove that you were as white as driven snow, you were “black” and to be treated poorly, as all African-Americans were of the time were. How would anyone know? That’s where it gets tricky. In America, up until the last 60 years, there was tremendous incentive to “pass”. Maybe not all the time. My grandparents passed when they wanted to go on cruises. My father tried to pass in World War II. Even I was told to deny my heritage when I went to summer camp in Iowa.
Passing is an ugly thing, because passing exposes you to the dark side of white supremacy. When white supremacists think that you are a sympathizer, they say some of the ugliest things imaginable. And unless you are a very brave person, someone who is passing says nothing. Passing when no one else in your family can pass may mean never seeing them again, never having roots, never having a family history that you can claim, or making up lies. And the reward, being treated as a regular human being, because that’s what it means to be white in America, vs. being treated like garbage, because that’s what it meant to be black in America. Even 1/8th black, even one-drop black.
So, what would it mean if there were black presidents? Nothing more than a historical tidbit, to some, but to the descendants of presidents, it is so offensive that President Harding’s children did genetic testing to show that going back 4 generations, everyone was white. If you remember the uproar over Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings descendants, Thomas Jefferson’s legitimate descendants tried for generations to claim that Hemings’ children were sired by Jefferson’s brother or cousin.
So, what about the black community? Why would it be so important to claim these individuals as “black”? To some, again, historical tidbit. To others, proof that “we” are capable of great things. To others, proof that “we” are interwoven into the fabric of society far more than white society wants to admit. If you believe that 7 of our presidents had African blood, what does it mean to you?
Below are the yes and no versions of the “story” of the 7 black presidents. Decide for yourself.
Seven Black Presidents Before Barack Obama
1. John Hanson (a Moor) was actually the 1st President of the United States, he served from 1781 – 1782 and he was black. The new country was actually formed on March 1, 1781 with the adoption of The Articles of Confederation. This document was actually proposed on June 11, 1776, but not agreed upon by Congress until November 15, 1777. Maryland refused to sign this document until Virginia and New York ceded their western lands (Maryland was afraid that these states would gain too much power in the new government from such large amounts of land).
Once the signing took place in 1781, a President was needed to run the country. John Hanson was chosen unanimously by Congress (which included George Washington). In fact, all the other potential candidates refused to run against him, as he was a major player in the revolution and an extremely influential member of Congress.
As President, Hanson ordered all foreign troops off American soil, as well as removal of all foreign flags. He established the Great Seal of the United States, which all Presidents since have been required to use on all Official Documents. He declared that the 4th Thursday of every November to be Thanksgiving Day, which is still true today. Even though elected, one variable that was never thought through was that America was not going to accept a Black President during the heart of the enslavement period. Enter George Washington.
Rebuttal: John Hanson (d. c. 1860) was an African American associated with the American Colonization Society, which sought to relocate black Americans to Liberia. In Liberia, he served as a senator from Grand Bassa County.
Senator Hanson has been confused with an earlier John Hanson, a white politician from Maryland who served as President of the Continental Congress during the American Revolution. According to this myth, John Hanson of Maryland was actually black. Internet sites promoting the hoax use the photograph of Senator John Hanson of Liberia to support the claim, even though photography had not yet been invented when the earlier John Hanson was living, as he died in 1783, and photography was not commercially introduced until 1850s.
2. Thomas Jefferson was the 3rd President of the United States, he served from 1801 – 1809 and he was black. His mother a half-breed Indian squaw and his father a mulatto (half white and half black) from Virginia. He fathered numerous children with Sally Hemmings, a mulatto slave with whom he lived with in Europe.
Rebuttal: Vaughn and others claim Thomas Jefferson’s mother Jane Randolph Jefferson was of mixed-race ancestry. The academic consensus does not support such claims. In her recent analyses of historical evidence about the Hemings and Jeffersons, for example, the scholar Annette Gordon-Reed makes no claim of African descent in the Randolph family.
Specifically, Vaughn says, “The chief attack on Jefferson was in a book written by Thomas Hazard in 1867 called The Johnny Cake Papers. Hazard interviewed Paris Gardiner, who said he was present during the 1796 presidential campaign, when one speaker states that Thomas Jefferson was a mean-spirited son of a half-breed Indian squaw and a Virginia mulatto father.” An overlapping claim is that, in an 18th-century Presidential campaign, someone speaking against Jefferson’s candidacy and in favor of that of John Adams accused Jefferson of being “half Injun, half nigger, half Frenchman” and born to a “mulatto father” or slave and “a half-breed Indian squaw”, this birth to a mulatto and an Indian allegedly “well-known in the neighbourhood where he was raised” but otherwise unproven. Vaughn also quoted biographer Samuel Sloan’s statement that there was “something strange” about Thomas Jefferson’s reportedly destroying papers and personal effects of his mother Jane Randolph Jefferson after her death. That is the extent of his evidence.
The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, the major public history site on Jefferson, characterizes Jefferson’s parents this way: “His father Peter Jefferson was a successful planter and surveyor and his mother Jane Randolph a member of one of Virginia’s most distinguished families.” They describe the quote in The Johnny Cake Papers as one frequently repeated, but it is attributed in written sources to the 1800 rather than the 1796 election campaign and clearly is one made by political opponents. The Johnny Cake Papers were a collection of folk tales published in 1879, not 1867, and only one tale commented on Jefferson.
3. Andrew Jackson was the 7th President of the United States. He served from 1829 – 1837 and he was black. His mother was a white woman from Ireland who had Andrew Jackson with a black man. His father’s other children (Andrew Jackson’s stepbrother) was sold into slavery.
Rebuttal: Andrew Jackson referred to a charge that his “Mother … [was] held to public scorn as a prostitute who intermarried with a Negro, and [that his] … eldest brother [was] sold as a slave in Carolina.” Less specific was a rumor of Jackson having “colored blood”, meaning having “Negro” ancestry; this rumor was unproven. President Jackson’s father was born in Carrickfergus, County Antrim, in current-day Northern Ireland, around 1738. Scholars Hendrik Booraem, Robert Remini, and H. W. Brands are agreed he had no black ancestors.
4. Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, he served from 1861 – 1865 and he was black. His mother was from an Ethiopian Tribe and his father was an African American. It was told that his father was Thomas Lincoln, a man to cover the truth, but he was sterile from childhood mumps and was later castrated, making it impossible for him to have been his father. Lincoln’s nickname “Abraham Africa-nus the First.”
Rebuttal: According to historian William E. Barton, a rumor “current in various forms in several sections of the South” was that Lincoln’s biological father was Abraham Enloe, which Barton dismissed as “false”. According to Doug Wead, Enloe publicly denied this connection to Lincoln but is reported to have privately confirmed it. Another claim was that Lincoln was “part Negro”, but that was unproven. Mail received by Lincoln called him “a negro” and a “mulatto”. Thomas Lincoln’s “complexion [was] swarthy”. According to Lincoln’s law partner William H. Herndon, Lincoln had “very dark skin” although “his cheeks were leathery and saffron-colored” and “his face was … sallow,” and “his hair was dark, almost black”. Abraham Lincoln described himself ca. 1838–’39 as “black” and his “complexion” in 1859 as “dark” but whether he meant either in an ancestral sense is unknown. The Charleston Mercury described him as being “of … the dirtiest complexion”.
5. Warren Harding was the 28th President of the United States, he served from 1921 – 1923 and he was black. Harding never denied his ancestry. When Republican leaders called on Harding to deny his “Negro” history, he said, “How should I know whether or not one of my ancestors might have jumped the fence?”
Rebuttal: Warren G. Harding was said to have African ancestry; one claim was by his political opponent, a controversial and racist historian, William Estabrook Chancellor. Chancellor said Harding’s father was a mulatto and Harding’s great-grandmother was black. During Harding’s campaign, Democratic opponents spread rumors that Harding’s great-great-grandfather was a West Indian black and that other blacks might be found in his family tree. Chancellor publicized rumors, based on supposed family research, but perhaps reflecting no more than local gossip. In an era when the “one-drop rule” would classify a person with any African ancestry as black, and black people in the South had been effectively disenfranchised, Harding’s campaign manager responded, “no family in the state (of Ohio) has a clearer, a more honorable record than the Hardings’, a blue-eyed stock from New England and Pennsylvania, the finest pioneer blood.” “Many biographers have dismissed the rumors of Harding’s mixed-race family as little more than a political scandal and Chancellor himself as a Democratic mudslinger and racist ideologue.” According to Chancellor, Harding got his only academic degree from Iberia College, which had been “founded to educate fugitive slaves.” The college was founded by abolitionist supporters in the Presbyterian Church in Ohio for students of both genders and all races.
“When asked directly about Chancellor’s account, Harding did not make any effort to deny that he may have had an African-American ancestor. He said he did not know and demonstrated that it was not a significant issue.”
The rumors may have been sustained by a statement Harding allegedly made to newspaperman James W. Faulkner on the subject, which he perhaps meant to be dismissive: “How do I know, Jim? One of my ancestors may have jumped the fence.” However, while there are gaps in the historical record, studies of his family tree have not found evidence of an African-American ancestor.
In 2015 genetic testing of Harding’s descendants determined, with more than a 95% percent chance of accuracy, that he lacked sub-Saharan African forebears within four previous generations.
6. Calvin Coolidge was the 29th President of the United States, he served from 1923 – 1929 and he was black. He proudly admitted that his mother was dark but claimed it was because of a mixed Indian ancestry. His mother’s maiden name was “Moor.” In Europe the name “Moor” was given to all Black people just as in America the name “Negro” was used.
Rebuttal: Calvin Coolidge’s mother Victoria Moor was claimed to be of a mixed-race family in Vermont. Vaughn noted that her surname was derived from “Moor”, a European term for people of North Africa. He did not note that another meaning of her surname is the landscape feature of moor or bog. People’s surnames were often based on such landscape features when surnames became generally adopted in 14th century England. Moor/Moore is a common name in England, Scotland, and Ireland. Coolidge said his mother had some Native American ancestry.
7. Dwight E. Eisenhower was the 33rd President of the United States, he served from 1953 – 1961 and he was black. His mother, Ida Elizabeth Stover Eisenhower, an anti-war advocate, was half black.
Rebuttal: Dwight D. Eisenhower’s mother was said to be of mixed blood from Africa and mulatto. However, historians and biographers of Eisenhower had documented his parents’ German, Swiss and English ancestry and long history in America. Some of his immigrant ancestors settled in Pennsylvania in 1741 and after, and migrated west to Kansas.
So there you have it. Afrocentric historians say one thing, and white historians say another. Harding is pretty conclusively white, if you believe genetic testing, which is what was used to establish the Jefferson/Hemings connection. The others? I am surprised that the testing hasn’t already been done, if it’s so important that they be “pure white”.
My opinion, it doesn’t matter. If they didn’t want to claim it, then I’m not going to try to claim them. However, to all of the white people who are offended at the possibility, I wish they would look deep within themselves, and recognize that if they really think there’s something, ANYTHING wrong with these men having some black ancestry, then they are racist. And they need to see it for what it is, and try to change. Having black ancestry actually means that you are the descendants of survivors, people determined to have lives, have love, have families, under the worst circumstances. It should be something to be proud of. At least that’s how I see it.