Sunday, June 8, 2008

U.S. History 901: America's Black Presidents

If elected in November, Barack Obama would be the first recognizably and admittedly black president of the United States. This will not mean, of course, that he will be the first black president. Or even the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th or 7th. I mean "black" as defined in this country, where even one-drop of "black blood" (it's more politically correct to say DNA, nowadays) makes you black regardless of your actual skin color or predominant ancestry. That "One-Drop Rule" remains virtually a law in social relations in the United States, accepted by common consent by both blacks and whites. It is a kind of continuity with a racist past that belies all real progress in fighting institutionalized racism. As Martí said, "Laws can be expunged from the code books but the attitudes which gave rise to them cannot be as easily erased from human relations."

In the days of slavery the more savage masters would auction off their own progeny with their mulatto concubines who were often as white as their fathers. Since legally they were considered black and stamped with the mark of Ham (that is, condemned biblically to be slaves), their actual color made no difference. Sometimes, however, the masters were not completely denatured and freed their biracial children. It is these who, if they could "pass" for white, would generally cross the color line, that is, they would uproot themselves literally to another part of the country and assume the identity and status of their fathers.

Naturally they married whites who often did not know their spouses were of mixed ancestry. Sometimes the birth of a child would announce that fact with tragic consequences. More likely, however, the transition to white would continue without setback and eventually be completely consummated in a generation or two. The final stage, of course, would be reached when even the descendents of those fair-skinned slaves had no inkling of their family's secret history and considered themselves and were recognized by the world as white. It is through these "subversive" individuals, white by choice and predominance of ancestry, that America's "black" presidents are descended.

There have been six U.S. presidents who are reputed to have had black ancestors: Thomas Jefferson; Andrew Jackson; Abraham Lincoln, Warren G. Harding; Calvin Coolidge; and Dwight D. Eisenhower. The eighth is still living today. We have already dedicated a post to Jimmy Carter's greatest distinction (one to which he has never staked aclaim). We'll only remark here that it is certainly ironic that during the craze over Alex Haley's Roots a man of color occupied the White House whose own roots were of interest to no one.

It was otherwise with another of America's worst presidents, Warren G. Harding, whose putative black ancestry was a matter of great national contention, with books and pamphlets written both to defend or challenge the allegation and federal seizure and destruction of imprints that asserted that America had "inadvertently elected its first Negro president" in 1920.

Throughout most of his adult life, and especially after he entered politics in his native Ohio, Harding had been dogged with rumors about his ancestry. He never denied those rumors, and when pressed to do so by Republican leaders on the eve of the presidential election, Senator Harding is reputed to have answered: "How should I know if one of my ancestors might have jumped the fence?" For the time, and given what was at stake, this answer was altogether too flippant to be considered anything but an admission.

The first to accuse Harding publicly of being a black man was Harding's political opponent and Marion, Ohio's richest man, Amos King. He was also Harding's father-in-law. King denounced and threatened to disinherit his daughter Florence for "polluting the family" when she married Harding against his wishes. It was King who approached Professor William Estabrook Chancellor, of Wooster College, Ohio, and prevailed on him to compile a genealogy of the Harding family which detailed Warren's black ancestry through a great-grandmother and presented dozens of affidavits from elderly residents of Marion who had personally known several generations of the Harding family and attested to their "black blood." In most states at the time, one black great-grandparent sufficed for someone to be considered black himself and subject to Jim Crow and all other disabilities imposed on people of color at the time, including the proscription against interracial marriage, which was a criminal offense in most states, including Ohio.

In retaliation for exposing Harding, Chancellor was fired by Wooster College and the entire edition of Chancellor's book was seized by the Justice Department in 1922, shipped by boxcar to Washington , D.C. and burned there. If five copies had not survived, today this story would probably not be given much credence. Some contend that Harding purchased the entire edition from Chancellor in what amounted to blackmail. Chancellor lived to almost 100, dying 40 years after Harding, but refused ever to discuss the book again though granting many interviews in which he disclaimed any association with it.

Harding had no issue with his wife Florence, who was several years his senior. Since her father left her his fortune after all it is presumed that an agreement was reached between them that she would not bear Harding's children. Harding did have two daughters out of wedlock with different women. In 1963, his letters to one of his illegimate daughters surfaced and by agreement with the Harding family were acquired by the Library of Congress and sealed for 50 years. They are scheduled to be open to public view in 2014. Then Harding's secret may at last be known. If anybody is still interested.


Ms Calabaza said...

Fascinating! . . . but then aren't we (the people) putting too much emphasis on race and not on the experience and character of the person we will eventually elect to lead this nation? Obama scares me to death, yet his race has nothing to do with those fears. . .

Angel Garzón said...

Fascinating indeed, thank God I lived the first fourteen years of my life in Cuba, where I never witnessed anything similar to the Jim Crow laws and its societal impact, then again, I was born and raised in Santiago and can only testify as to what I experienced in a city that was well known for its liberal outlook on race, I have heard that there were certain parts of Cuba where racism was overt, but yet nothing comparable to the U.S.A.

Ms. C., no need to be scared, just be prepared in case, I do not believe that Obama is going to be elected President, his closet is replete with skeletons of anti-Americanism, his friends and acquaintances cannot or will not differentiate between some Americans and all Americans, they hate all of the U.S.A. and what it stands for, instead of just focusing their hatred on those who may have done them wrong, which could have been understandable even for those of us who refuse to condone hatred. Just remember to keep your second amendment clean and ready to be used...;-)

Vana said...


Thanks for the history lesson, indeed had those men been found out during Jim Crow, it's not hard to imagine what could have befell them, like Ms C, Obama does not scare me because he's black, he scares me because...

Manuel A.Tellechea said...

A Few Notes on Warren G. Harding:

Warren G. Harding was the first presidential satyr. Like JFK and Clinton, he turned the White House into his personal brothel. His administration was also the most corrupt in American history. If his own death in office had not prevented it, he might have been implicated in the Teapot Dome scandal (about oil leases).

In respect to Cuba, his pro-consul General Enoch Crowder had the presumption to dictate to President Alfredo Zayas a "cabinet of honest men." When Crowder returned to the U.S., Zayas, on his motorcycle, personally delivered letters of dismissal to all of Mr. Crowder's proteges.

That act, alone, was deserving of the statue that Zayas erected to himself outside the presidential palace. It became famous because Zayas is depicted with one hand in his pant's pocket and the other pointing to the Palace. Cubans joked that the statue was saying: "What I have in my pocket, I got over there."

When students were stoning his statue one day, Zayas also famously remarked: "Today they may be throwing stones but some day they'll be placing flowers."

Instead, Castro knocked down Zayas' statue, as he did Estrada Palma's on the "Avenida de los Presidentes."

Vana said...

Thanks Manuel for the note and further info, a must read!

Angel Garzón said...

Tammany Hall comes to mind, Manuel you may consider writing a book or books about these not so well known historical details, I'd be glad to pay for an autographed copy for myself and a few others to donate to libraries.

Anonymous said...

Obama is white

Manuel A.Tellechea said...


As white as he is black.

nonee moose said...

Way to root them all out, MAT. You're doing God's work.


Manuel A.Tellechea said...


No need to hold a parade for Obama.

That parade went by a long time ago.

Which is my point.

What is yours?

nonee moose said...

My point is "What's your point?"

Perhaps everyone should stop lauding you for your incisive post, since all the research has been done before.

All those other "one-droppers" passed? But here we have one in all his colored glory, but it doesn't mean anything. Yes, I think I see you point.

I liked it better when you were fearing the manchurian marxist. It was much more compelling.

Manuel A.Tellechea said...


Nothing is new under the sun.

Certainly Warren G. Harding's black ancestry was well-known to every American 85 years ago.

Not so anymore.

Warren G. Harding himself is completely forgotten.

The only time he ever makes the news is when historians polled on America's worst president choose him.

Is it "incisive" to remind everybody that the U.S. has already elected at least one black president?

I don't know about "incisive," but it is certainly timely.

Or don't you think so?

What's the "big friggin' deal?" you asked.

The BFD is that Obama isn't.

Unless you propose to argue that Obama with his 50% African genomes is more black than Harding with his 12%.

nonee moose said...

Look MAT, I'm no Obamoid. And I also think not enough has been made of how his campaign has dared anyone to call him black, under penalty of being accused of playing the race card. Between you and me, I think it was a brilliant strategy on his part, worth 2-3 points on guilt alone.

But it almost seems like you revel in not buying into that stratagem, which is very shrewd on your part, not succumbing to the whisper campaign of white-guilt being waged. The problem is that, like a child freed from any prohibition on candy, one can easily cross the line between free exercise and indigestion.

Don't be the guy that gets sick from pointing out the obvious and its irrelevance. Of course, you're a grown man. Eat as much as you want.

Why would engage in who's blacker than whom? It's not suposed to matter, right?

Manuel A.Tellechea said...


It's Obama who identifies himself as black. People call him what he wants to be called. If he called himself green, common civility would dictate that we all call him green. Or would it?

In any case, my point is that if (God forbid) he's elected president, he won't be the first black president.

The U.S. has been there and done that.

If that is the reason to elect Obama (and I can see no other), then there is no reason to elect him.

Fulano de Cal said...

Great line by McCain:

"Sen. Obama says that I'm running for a Bush's third terms. It seems to me he's running for Jimmy Carter's second."

This makes my day.

traderinms said...

Finally NO MORE WHITE GUILT, NO MORE EXCUSES. The culture war is over/not valid. America has chosen a Black president, it took over 61% of the WHITE Vote, 11% Hispanic. American can never be accused of the whites being racist majority again! A Black man with no real father in his life has made the highest office in the land! This means if he can do it, all other minorities can. Yes America, it was time for a change, and it was a good one, NO MORE ARTIFICIALLY INDUCED WHITE GUILT. I wish Barack much success, he is my president, his success is my success, his failure is my failure.

Adam said...

Yeah, Carter for sure was part black. Hence, that explains the reason why he looks it. And he's the only other president (other than our current one, Obama) to side with the PLO.