By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
2. President Andrew Jackson
President Andrew Jackson, fondly called Old Hickory, was America’s seventh president. African-American historian J. A. Rogers who wrote The Five Negro Presidents: According to what White People Said They Were claimed that President Jackson’s putative father, Andrew Jackson Sr., actually died over a year before President Jackson was born and therefore couldn’t be his biological father. He further claimed that upon the death of Jackson Sr., the president’s mother moved to a farm where there were African slaves. One of the slaves, Rogers claims, sired President Andrew Jackson.
This story stretches my credulity to the limit. Apart from the fact that the story is of questionable authenticity, there is nothing in President Jackson’s physical features to suggest an immediate African stemma, although appearances can be deceiving.
In Black People and Their Place in History, Leroy Vaughn takes claims of the alleged part-African parentage of Andrew Jackson even higher. He cites what he says was an article written in the 29th volume of The Virginia Magazine of History which allegedly stated that Jackson was the son of an Irish woman who married a black man. The magazine also allegedly said Jackson’s oldest brother had been sold as a slave because of his more obvious African features.
Other Black American authors cite David Coyle's 1960 book titled Ordeal of the Presidency as having provided evidence that Jackson’s brother was sold into slavery.
3. President Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln, America’s 16th president, served between 1861 and 1865. He is most remembered for saving the Union during the American Civil War and for emancipating African slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation.
J. A. Rogers cites Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks, as having once allegedly confessed that Abraham Lincoln was the love child from her affairs with an African man. No independent documentary evidence has been adduced to authenticate the alleged quotation from President Lincoln’s mother.
But other Black American authors eager to prove that Lincoln was “black” reference another book titled The Hidden Lincoln written by a certain William Herndon, Lincoln's alleged law partner, which purportedly averred that Lincoln had a darker than normal white skin, thick negroid hair, and that his mother was Ethiopian. The author is also alleged to have argued that Thomas Lincoln could not have been Abraham Lincoln's father because he was barren from childhood mumps and was later emasculated.
Another indication of the acknowledgement of his “blackness,” according to the authors, was that Lincoln’s political opponents allegedly made newspaper drawings that caricatured him as an African American, and derisively labeled him “Abraham Africanus the First.” That might have been because he was seen as sympathetic to African Americans during the Civil War.
4. 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 black 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 many Europeans “black” since recent DNA evidence suggests that many Western and Southern Europeans have vestiges of African blood in them.
Well, Chancellor’s book, which was published while Harding was alive, declared 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 the in-law reportedly didn’t want his bloodline to be blemished with what he considered baseborn black 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 black 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 mentioned here, 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 whispering campaign alleging that his family members were “passing” for white when they were actually 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 himself dismissed this explanation as rather wishy-washy and improbable.
To be concluded next week
America's Unknown Black Presidents Before Obama? I
America's Unknown Black Presidents Before Obama? I