By Farooq A. Kperogi
President Warren Harding
Warren G. Harding, the 29th president of the United States who served between 1921 and 1923, is probably the only truly previous “black” president of the United States, if the white historian William Estabrook Chancellor was correct. And he probably was, given the unusually heightened frenzy and flurries of denials—and endorsements—that his 1920 book about the hidden African ancestry of President Harding generated.
Note that I am using the word “black” in its peculiarly American context, which is scandalously hidebound, hopelessly essentialist and, yes, notoriously out of step with commonsense notions of “blackness” worldwide. The American notion of blackness—encapsulated in the so-called “one-drop rule” which I briefly discussed in the first part of this article—conceives of blackness as an inerasable genetic stain, so that the remotest ancestral connection with Black Africa defines one as black. This preposterous logic would make most Europeans “black” since recent DNA evidence suggests that about 75 percent of Western and Southern Europeans have vestiges of African blood in them.
Well, Chancellor’s book, which was published while Harding was alive, asserted that Harding’s great grandmother was an African-American. Several historical sources said all but five copies of the book were bought and burned by Harding’s supporters and by agents of the U.S. Justice Department.
Chancellor also lost his job as a professor of politics and economics at Worcester College in the state of Ohio, where Harding hailed from. Although the book was decidedly a politically motivated screed designed to lower Harding’s standing in White America (in 1920s America, to be called black was a political death sentence), it contained treasure troves of circumstantial evidence that were, and still are, difficult to dismiss with a shrug.
Chancellor, for instance, proved that Harding was educated at Iberia College, a school specifically designed to train runaway slaves. It is also said that Harding’s in-law strongly disapproved of his daughter’s marriage to Harding because he reportedly didn’t want his bloodline to be blemished with what he considered baseborn African ancestry.
Similarly, aged residents of President Harding’s hometown of Marion, Ohio, had sworn affidavits that Elizabeth Madison, Harding’s great grandmother, was African American. And African-American historians claim that Harding himself was never forceful and categorical in his denials of his African ancestry.
According to African-American historian J.A. Rogers, when leaders of the Republican Party, Harding’s party, called on him to refute allegations that he was a closet "Negro," he reportedly said, "How should I know whether or not one of my ancestors might have jumped the fence?"
Significantly, unlike the previous American presidents we have discussed in the first part of this article, there is demonstrable proof that Harding and his immediate ancestors actually had to confront and live with rumors of their alleged suppressed African ancestry. In fact, President Harding’s official biographer, Francis Russell, devoted several pages to this issue in his 1968 book titled The Shadow of Blooming Grove.
He said the official explanation by the Harding family of the factors that led to the birth and maturation of the whispering campaign alleging that his family was “passing” for white when they were indeed black was this: Harding’s great-great-grandfather, Amos Harding, once caught and exposed a man who was cutting down his neighbor’s apple trees and that the man initiated the gossip in retribution. Interestingly, Russell dismissed this explanation as rather wishy-washy and improbable.
The rumors surfaced again with renewed vigor when Barack Obama emerged on the American political scene. In fact, the New York Times, America’s most prestigious newspaper, commissioned Beverly Gage, a well-regarded professor of modern American history from Yale University, to write a piece on the subject.
Writing in the New York Times of April 6, 2008 under the title “Our first black president?” Gage concludes: “[…] 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. But as with the long-denied and now all-but-proved allegations of Thomas Jefferson’s affair with his slave Sally Hemings, there is reason to question the denials. From the perspective of 2008, when interracial sex is seen as a historical fact of life instead of an abomination, the circumstantial case for Harding’s mixed-race ancestry is intriguing though not definitive.”
This cautious admission of President Harding’s “black” parentage says a lot, especially coming from a white historian from an Ivy League university.
President Calvin Coolidge was elected vice president and succeeded as the 30th President of the United States when President Harding died in 1923 while on a speaking tour in California. If Harding is the most probable past American president with an African ancestry, Coolidge is perhaps the least probable. However, many African-American historians think otherwise. Auset Bakhufu, author of The Six Black Presidents, claims that Coolidge was, in fact, proud of his African ancestry, a highly implausible proposition given the dishonor in which blackness was held in 1930s America.
Bakhufu claims that Coolidge’s mother was “dark” but that he explained away the darkness of his mother’s skin by attributing it to the fact of her mixed Indian heritage. Bakhufu then relies on this alleged explanation to assert that at the time Coolidge’s mother was born in New England, the American Indians there had all been intermarried with black people.
This interpretive leap stretches my credulity to the limit. It is not clear to me how a person can simultaneously be proud of his ancestry and strain hard to explain it away, thereby denying it outright.
Black American conspiracy theorists also claim that Coolidge’s mother’s maiden name was “Moor” and that Moor used to be the generic name for all black people, especially in Europe. Well, if that logic should stand, then white people whose last names are Black must be part African too!
Dwight David Eisenhower
The evidence proffered to support claims of the African ancestry of Dwight David Eisenhower, America’s 34th president who served between 1953 and 1961, is also weak and speculative. Black American historians allege that Eisenhower’s mother, Ida Elizabeth Stover, was part black and part white, which makes her— and all her descendants— “black,” according to America’s unique racial typology.
But what is the evidence that Eisenhower who, according to his officual biography was an American of German descent, was “black”? According to one conspiracy theorist, “Interviews made during the 50s uncovered some very old people who long remembered referring to Eisenhower's mother as ‘that black Links gal’.”
Another piece of “evidence” is the picture of Eisenhower’s mother on her wedding day published in his autobiography. Someone claimed the woman “would not have been able to eat in restaurants anywhere in the South before the end of segregation.” Well, I saw the picture myself and the woman looked lily-white, as Americans like to say.
Of course, in my studies of American presidential rhetoric, I discovered that Eisenhower was more obliging to African-Americans than many past American presidents. He was, for instance, the first president to deploy federal force to desegregate schools in the South. He was also the first president to invite African-American leaders to the White House, and the first to appoint a black person into an executive position in the White House.
But it’s not a persuasive argument to assert that a president’s complaisance to a historically oppressed people is an outward manifestation of his suppressed genetic relationship to the group.
But why should it matter if any past American president was part African? Why should this interest us in an age when scientists, scholars, and DNA analyses continue to explode the myth of racial exclusivity? Well, it is partly because while these progressive developments are taking place, we are also witnessing what appears like the recrudescence of nineteenth-century scientific racism on the fringes. But that’s a topic for another day.
Another reason why this is important is that America is a nation that is heavily invested in racial symbolisms. It will elevate the sense of self-worth of African-Americans if they can convince themselves (even if they can’t convince others) that some past American presidents share an ancestral linkage with them.
I also think it’s a creative inversion of the logic of one-drop rule. Most so-called black Americans are not simply African; they are an embodiment of a multiplicity of racial identities. They are “black” only because a racist power structure pronounced them so. As Langston Hughes, the eminent “African” American poet, once wrote, "You see, unfortunately, I am not black. There are lots of different kinds of blood in our family. But here in the United States, the word 'Negro' is used to mean anyone who has any Negro blood at all in his veins. In Africa, the word is more pure. It means all Negro, therefore, black. I am brown."
However, even though in 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court unequivocally invalidated the one-drop rule, it continues to be employed in self-definition and the definition of others.