By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
In continuation of my Black History Month articles, I bring you a condensed and updated version of a series of articles I wrote in 2008 on the putative African ancestry of 6 past American presidents before President Barack Obama.
Talk of the “suppressed” African racial identities of past American presidents has been grist in the rumor mills of fringe elements in America, especially among “black nationalist groups.” Who are these past American presidents who are allegedly “black”? And what kinds of evidence have been proffered to justify the claims?
Although discussion about America’s closet “black” presidents became more manifest in the black American community after Barack Obama became a serious contender for the American presidency in 2008, it actually began to gain currency about four years earlier. In February of 2004, a certain C. Stone Brown wrote a widely circulated article for the New Jersey-based DiversityInc magazine titled, “Who were the 5 Black Presidents?”
Brown’s article was inspired by three books written on the subject by fringe African American historians: Dr. Leroy Vaughn’s Black People and Their Place in History (Vaughn was actually an eye doctor), Joel A. Rogers’s The Five Negro Presidents: According to what White People Said They Were, and Dr. Auset Bakhufu’s Six Black Presidents: Black Blood: White Masks USA. These books claim that at least six former presidents of the United States trace parts of their ancestry to West Africans enslaved to the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries, and are therefore “black.”
The past American presidents often said to have had tints of African blood in their Caucasian veins are former presidents Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Dwight David Eisenhower. I discuss each of them in what follows:
Black American conspiracy theorists claim that Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president and chief drafter of its Declaration of Independence, who served two terms between 1801 and 1809, was black—that is, in the bizarre way “blackness” is defined in America, which I will discuss in some detail later.
The principal evidence that the Black American authors invoke in the service of their claim is an 1867 book on him by a certain Thomas Hazard titled The Johnny Cake Papers. I have not read the book myself, so I can neither independently vouch for the facticity of the claims in the book nor the accuracy of the information quoted from it.
Well, the authors said Hazard interviewed some man named Paris Gardiner who reportedly said he was present during a 1796 presidential campaign rally when one speaker publicly declared that Thomas Jefferson was “a mean-spirited son of a half-breed Indian squaw and a Virginia mulatto father.” (Note that “Indian” refers here not to the people in India in the Asian continent but to the native peoples in the Americas before the European conquest of the territory, and “squaw” is the generic term for all American Indian women).
If we believe this chain of apocryphal testimonies, then Jefferson’s father was half white and half black while his mother was half Native American and half white. By the perverted logic of the “one-drop rule,” which holds that a person with even the vaguest scintilla of African blood in his/her pedigree cannot be considered white, President Jefferson was “black”—or at least non-white.
As Madison Grant wrote in his racist book, The Passing of the Great Race, “The cross between a white man and an Indian is an Indian; the cross between a white man and a negro is a negro; the cross between a white man and a Hindu is a Hindu; and the cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew.”
Another book that the authors reference to support their case that Jefferson was “black,” which I have also not read, is Samuel Sloan’s The Slave Children of Thomas Jefferson. In the book, Sloan is quoted to have said that Jefferson destroyed all of the papers, portraits, and personal effects of his mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson, who died on March 31, 1776. "There is something strange and even psychopathic,” Sloan is quoted to have written, “about the lengths to which Thomas Jefferson went to destroy all remembrances of his mother, while saving over 18,000 copies of his own letters and other documents for posterity."
However, I thought Jefferson should have been more concerned with destroying all records of his father rather than of his mother’s since it was his father who was allegedly a “mulatto.” In any case, historically, the notion of invariable membership in a "racial" group on account of remote genetic connection with the group has scarcely been applied to people of Native American ancestry. The concept has been largely applied to people of black African ancestry. That is why the story doesn’t strike me as credible.
Again, President Jefferson looked as typically Caucasian as any white American I know. Of course, this is not necessarily a guarantee that he doesn’t have a tincture of African blood in his ancestry. But I would have been more persuaded to believe this rumor if its evidentiary proofs were derived from authentic archival records, although, again, archives can be destroyed and/or manipulated. The only relationship Jefferson had with a black person, which has been confirmed by historical records and even acknowledged by his own descendants, is that he had affairs with a slave girl named Sally Hemmings on his plantation and had up five children with her.
By America’s convoluted racial classification, those children are “black.” So the best or worst thing (depending on where you stand) that can be said about Jefferson, according to extant records, is that he was the “white” father of illegitimate “black” children—in addition to his legitimate “white” children.
To be continued next week