Were There Black US Presidents?
By Kwaku Person-Lynn, Ph.D.
The ascendancy of Senator Barack Obama as the presumptive Democratic Party presidential nominee has resurrected a debate that has existed for decades. There have been various rumors floating around that the United States had black presidents. Seeking clarification on this issue is trickier than it would normally seem.
Several have written on this subject, including: Joel Augustus Rogers, The Five Negro Presidents; Auset Bakhufu, The Six Black Presidents - Black Blood: White Masks; and Leroy Vaughn, Black People and Their Place in History. Although most writers talk about five presidents, Bakhufu adds Dwight D. Eisenhower as the sixth. However, the most recent discussion did not involve any of the above.
Around a decade ago, on several black talk radio programs, Dick Gregory was touting the subject of a black president. The headline of an article on his website is "A ‘Black’ Man, A Moor, http://www.dickgregory.com/index_hanson.html John Hanson, was the First President of the United States! 1781-1782 A.D." He had a darkened gentleman circled on the back of the two-dollar bill as John Hanson for proof. It actually turns out to be Governor George Walton, a delegate to the signing of the Declaration of Independence; the scene on the back of the two dollar bill.
Gregory’s article states, "Hanson, as President, ordered all foreign troops off American soil, as well as the removal of all foreign flags. Hanson established the Great Seal of the United States, which all Presidents have since been required to use on all official documents. He declared that the fourth Thursday of every November was to be Thanksgiving Day, which is still true today." One variable someone did not clearly think through, America was not going to select a black president during the heart of the enslavement period.
There was a John Hanson. He was the ninth president of the Continental Congress overall, and the first president of the Continental Congress to serve a full term after ratification of the Articles of Confederation. Some refer to him as the third president, but that was during the Second Continental Congress. He was Caucasian.
Around 1881, after the US Congress was formed, there was a black John Hanson. He was a senator from Grand Bassa County, Liberia, America’s only Afrikan colony. He advocated for enslaved Afrikans to be sent to Liberia. This is where Gregory, a long time activist, had some confusion. Senator Hanson is the photograph Gregory mistakenly displays on his website.
Hollywood, with the creative freedom to make anything possible on screen, jumped into the black president caricatures going all the way back to 1933. Sammy Davis Jr., at 7 years old, played the first black president in the musical/comedy short, "Rufus Jones for President".
Things got a little more serious with stellar black actors playing presidents in feature films. Some pundits have suggested that the dignity and acceptance of the following may have provided a greater openness for a black president today: Morgan Freeman in "Impact; Dennis Haysbert in "24"; and James Earl Jones in "The Man". Chris Rock also played a black president in the comedy "Head of State". (Greg Braxton. Los Angeles Times)
Many young people and some oldsters too, were probably puzzled when author Toni Morrison made the following statement about then president Bill Clinton. "In an October 1998 essay in The New Yorker, Morrison wrote: ‘Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black president. Blacker than any actual person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime.’" (ABC News blog) Ms. Morrison may have a revised statement in the not to distant future.
Orville R. Taylor, in an article, "Black Presidents", was more negatively cynical when he wrote, "Bill Clinton is reputed to be the first because of his stereotypical similarity to African-American men; weed, womanizing, Red Stripe beer and jazz music. Furthermore, like Obama, his father was an absentee but more cleverly hidden from public scrutiny."
Before diving into the main subject, most of us were trained to have good manners, such as, "Ladies first." Let’s look at the lineage of probably the most popular first lady in American history, the former wife of President John F. Kennedy. "Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whose blood lines, according to the historian Mario de Valdes y Cocom, goes back to the van Salees, a Muslim family of Afro-Dutch origin prominent in Manhattan in the early 1600's. (Mitchell Owens. "Surprises in the Family Tree." New York Times)
An explanation is offered on how some presidents may have Afrikan ancestry. "If any branch of your family has been in America since the 17th or 18th centuries," Dr. Berlin, a professor of American history at the University of Maryland and the founding director of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project said, "it's highly likely you will find an African and an American Indian.
"There were communities in 17th- and 18th-century America where blacks and whites, both free, of equal rank and shared experiences, were working together, living together, drinking and partying together, and inevitably sleeping together.’" (Owens) If there was a genetic investigation into other first ladies, surprises could come in abundance.
We now turn our attention directly towards the controversial topic of undeclared black presidents. The literary standard, and the most referenced work on this subject, is Joel A. Rogers 19 page pamphlet, The Five Negro Presidents.
Obviously, the one-drop rule applied here. This was a decree that defined a person black, if one drop of Afrikan ancestry was in a person’s lineage. It was used during slavery, the Jim Crow period of segregation in the South, and upheld in southern courts.
One might say it is an unwritten rule today. Take the case of North Carolina congressman G. K. Butterfield. One hundred percent of anyone who sees him would, without hesitation, classify him as Caucasian. No doubt, to the surprise of many, he is black, and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Dr. Charles B. Copher, godfather of biblical scholars of Afrikan descent, in his famous lecture, "Black People In And Of The Bible" stated "Black people range from chalk to charcoal."
Rogers, in chronicling five black presidents, according to European descent sources he used, offers a strong argument that there may have been black presidents in the past. Critics claimed he did not supply enough credible evidence.
He begins with Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd president of the US. "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.’" Jefferson destroyed all papers, portraits and personal effects of his mother when she died.
It is no secret Jefferson sired children of Afrikan descent from his favorite slave at Monticello, his residence, Sally Hemings. Modern DNA tests confirm this. A Nature Magazine article titled "Founding Father" concluded, "Almost two hundred years ago Thomas Jefferson was alleged to have fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings. The charges have remained controversial. Now, DNA analysis confirms that Jefferson was indeed the father of at least one of Hemings' children." (Eric S. Lander & Joseph J. Ellis. November 5, 1998)
Andrew Jackson, the 7th president, also has a curious background. In the Virginia Magazine of History, it states that Jackson was the son of an Irish woman who married a black man. The magazine also stated that Jackson's oldest brother had been sold as a slave. (John M. Belohlavek. "Assault on the president: the Jackson-Randolph affair of 1833")
Another source stated, "General Jackson’s mother was a common prostitute … brought to this country by the British soldiers! She afterward married a mulatto man, with whom she had several children, of which number General Jackson is one." (Robert Remini. Andrew Jackson)
Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president, was seen as the man who abolished slavery; thus, his nickname, "The Great Emancipator". His motives were other than altruistic, as well as his view that enslaved Afrikans were inferior. "I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races--that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which will ever forbid the two races living together in terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior. I am as much as any other man in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."
(Sixth Debate with Steven A. Douglas at Quincy, Ill. Oct. 13, 1858)
Rogers says of Lincoln, that he "was the illegitimate son of an African man. Lincoln’s mother was said to have admitted that he was the progeny of a black man. William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner, said that Lincoln had very dark skin and coarse hair and that his mother was from an Ethiopian tribe. In Herndon's book entitled The Hidden Lincoln he says that Thomas Lincoln (Lincoln’s acknowledged father) could not have been Abraham Lincoln's father because he was sterile from childhood mumps and was later castrated."
Warren Harding, the 29th president, never denied his black heritage. "Harding had black ancestors between both sets of parents. William Chancellor, a white professor of economics and politics at Wooster College in Ohio, wrote a book on the Harding family genealogy and identified Black ancestors among both parents of President Harding. Justice Department agents allegedly bought and destroyed all copies of this book. Chancellor also said that Harding's only academic credentials included education at Iberia College, which was founded in order to educate fugitive slaves." (Rogers)
Monica Haynes, of the Pittsburg Courier wrote, in her infamous article, "Racial heritage of six former presidents is questioned," "However, Marsha Stewart doesn't need any professional research. Mrs. Stewart, a 60-year-old black woman who teaches in suburban Detroit, said Mr. Harding is her cousin. She said it's something the family always has known but didn't publicly talk about. (February 5, 2008)
Dr. Leroy Vaughn, who quoted J.A. Rogers liberally, stated in his book, Black People and Their Place in World History, about Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president, "He claimed his mother was dark because of mixed Indian ancestry. Coolidge's mother's maiden name was ‘Moor’, in Europe the name was given to all blacks. Dr. Auset Bakhufu says that by 1800 the New England Indian was hardly any longer pure Indian, because they had mixed so often with Blacks."
Bakhufu, in his previously mentioned out of print book, lists Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President, as the sixth black president. He was the WWII commanding officer, and saw the Afrikan general Hannibal as his favorite war hero. "According to research found in Wikipedia, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration confirms Eisenhower, the 34th president, also had black ancestors. His mother, Ida Elizabeth Stover Eisenhower, an anti-war advocate, was part black. This is also verified by Answers.com and several other web sites." (Aysha Hussain. "Eisenhower, Too? Were There More Than 5 'Black' Presidents?")
"Many of Eisenhower’s ancestors, from his mother’s side of the family, carried African names – names that were heard in and around the pyramids and temples in ancient times. Two female ancestors’ names were Hypatia, i.e., Hypatia Link and Hypatia McGhee. Hypatia was an African mathematician and teacher." (Bakhufu)
Rogers, in his previous mentioned pamphlet, referred to Eisenhower as a black president, but did not mention his name. Eisenhower was still alive when he completed his work, and perhaps did not want to spark a nasty debate. However, the evidence shows Rogers was clandestinely talking about Eisenhower. He mentioned this unnamed president’s mother being born in Virginia. No other president’s mother after Harding was born there.
Currently, there is no known DNA evidence on any of the previously mentioned presidents to add to the eyewitness and secondary accounts of racial identification. There was a DNA test done on President William Harding, but that was only to determine if a child was his from an alleged lover. There has been some talk, but as imagined, there is some reluctance to go ahead. The discussion is probably similar to that which took place in Kemet (Egypt) after Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop, master historian, anthropologist, physicist and politician, conducted the melanin dosage test on certain royal mummies, proving they were black. Such tests are no longer allowed.
Ironically, it is interesting how Senator Barack Obama’s political journey has re-ignited this topic. We can only wait to see if he becomes the first declared black president, which may serve to bring out those in the color closet, as well as give children of Afrikan descent hope that they can be whatever they choose to work hard at. There is one side effect; President’s Day may eventually have a totally different meaning.
By the way, Obama, in Kiswahili (spoken in Kenya, home of his father) means ‘sent by God.’
Dr. Kwaku website: www.drkwaku.com