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
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
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
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
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.
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
"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
By the way, Obama, in Kiswahili
(spoken in Kenya, home of his father) means ‘sent by God.’
Dr. Kwaku website: