African-American heritage of United States presidents
The African-American heritage of United States presidents is a topic on one President with African-American heritage and is a disputed topic relating primarily to six other Presidents who identified as white and were commonly considered part of European-American society. The academic consensus of historians rejects most of the specific claims below that the men may have had some African ancestry, the consensus acknowledging the long history of interracial relations in the United States.
- 1 Background
- 2 Significance of claims
- 3 Claims of African heritage
- 4 John Hanson
- 5 Notes
- 6 References
- 7 External links
These claims have been made by the historian William Estabrook Chancellor, amateur historian J. A. Rogers, ophthalmologist Dr. Leroy William Vaughn, and Dr. Auset BaKhufu. All but Chancellor base their theories chiefly on the work of J. A. Rogers, who apparently self-published a pamphlet in 1965 claiming African ancestry of five presidents. Vaughn's and BaKhufu's books appear to have been self-published.
Historians' and biographers' studies of these presidents have not supported such claims, nor have the claims above been peer-reviewed. They are generally ignored by scholars. They repeat each other's material and are classified as "rumormongers and amateur historians." Vaughn and BaKhufu have added little substantive research to their claims, although there has been extensive new documentation of race relations by others in the decades since Rogers published his pamphlet.
Significance of claims
Citizenship and associated claims split on two dimensions: formal legal citizenship, and full social and political citizenship. While claims of African ancestry may have created social scandal (and that varied in time and place), even in Thomas Jefferson's time, a person of less than one-quarter African ancestry could be considered legally white. Later this was changed so that a person must have one-eighth or less African ancestry to be legally white. Jefferson's mixed-race children from his relationship with Sally Hemings, were seven-eighths white. There is ample evidence in historical records that people of mixed race could be accepted in communities, as they were documented as exercising the rights of citizens to bear arms and vote. Social acceptance by the majority white community was often the key as to whether a person was considered white, more than details about ancestry, especially in early periods when few records were kept.
This classification of ancestry and social class was separate from the legal status derived from partus sequitur ventrem, the law that made all children of enslaved mothers also slaves. This law hardened slavery as a racial caste system. But, it was not until after the end of slavery and regaining of power by conservative whites in the late 19th-century South that they passed laws to create racial segregation and Jim Crow. From 1890 to 1908, southern states of the former Confederacy passed constitutional amendments and legislation making voter registration more difficult, essentially disfranchising most blacks and tens of thousands of poor whites. Such disfranchisement essentially lasted until the civil rights movement gained Congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to protect constitutional rights of citizens to vote.
In the early 20th century, southern states tried to find more ways to enforce segregation. Beginning with Tennessee in 1910, through Oklahoma in 1931, most southern states adopted the one-drop rule, and hardened racial lines so that a person of any African ancestry was to be considered black. During the same period, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Utah retained their old "blood fraction" statutes de jure, but amended these fractions (one-sixteenth, one-thirty-second) to be equivalent to one-drop de facto.
In recent decades, United States historians have more thoroughly explored the years of slavery and opened up discussion of race relations. They have noted the number and variety of mixed-race families that arose in colonial and antebellum United States. In award-winning research, Paul Heinegg traced the ancestry of free black families in North Carolina in the 1790 census, finding that most descended from free people of color in colonial Virginia who migrated to other areas. They were mostly descendants of unions between white women, indentured servant or free, and African men, slave, indentured or free, from years when associations among the working class were fluid. The historian Dr. Ira Berlin praised Heinegg's "meticulous research" in his Foreword to his work.
Nell Irvin Painter examined issues of power in Southern History Across the Color Line (2002). Joshua Rothman looked closely at antebellum Virginia and numerous mixed-race families in Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861 (2003). In two books, the scholar Annette Gordon-Reed showed how historians had ignored evidence of Thomas Jefferson's and Sally Hemings' long affair and mixed-race children. In her deep research, however, she did not support claims that Jefferson was of mixed-race descent. DNA studies in 1998 showed a match between the Jefferson male line and a descendant of Eston Hemings, leading experts to conclude that Jefferson was likely the father of Hemings' children. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation agrees that the weight of historical evidence supports this.
Legally, by the Constitution, a President has to be a natural born U.S. citizen, but exactly what "natural born" means in that context has not been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court and it even might never be, one question being whether a person qualified even if born abroad if both of their parents or only one of them had been born in the U.S., but the terminology does not include a naturalized citizen.
Claims of African heritage
President Barack Obama had a Kenyan father and an American mother of European ancestry. A fabricated controversy arose over whether Obama was born in the U.S., a claim generally being that he was born in Africa, which might have denied him the right to be President even if elected. A rumor that Obama was born in Africa persisted after his first Presidential inauguration and into his second Presidential campaign.
However, a document allegedly recording an African (Kenyan) birth was almost immediately revealed to be a forgery. It purports to have been issued by the "Republic of Kenya" when, in fact, such a state did not yet exist at the time of Obama's birth as indicated on the document, because Kenya was a British colony until 1963. Subsequently, evidence was unearthed that the alleged Kenyan birth certificate was a modified version of a 1959 Australian birth certificate found on an online genealogy website. The Washington Independent website cited an anonymous blogger as having taken responsibility for the forgery and posting four photos substantiating his claim. Examples of actual 1961 Kenyan birth certificates have also been published.
More recently, genealogists associated with ancestry.com have provided documentation supporting the claim that Obama is descended through his white mother from John Punch, the first African-American enslaved for life in America (Obama's 11th great-great-grandfather).
None of the claims below has been verified by reliable sources in peer-reviewed publications.
Vaughn and others claim Thomas Jefferson's mother Jane Randolph Jefferson was of mixed-race ancestry. The academic consensus does not support such claims. In her recent analyses of historical evidence about the Hemings and Jeffersons, for example, the scholar Annette Gordon-Reed makes no claim of African descent in the Randolph family.
Specifically, Vaughn says, "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." An overlapping claim is that, in an 18th-century Presidential campaign, someone speaking against Jefferson's candidacy and in favor of that of John Adams accused Jefferson of being "half Injun, half nigger, half Frenchman" and born to a "mulatto father" or slave and "a half-breed Indian squaw", this birth to a mulatto and an Indian allegedly "well-known in the neighbourhood where he was raised" but otherwise unproven. Vaughn also quoted biographer Samuel Sloan's statement that there was "something strange" about Thomas Jefferson's reportedly destroying papers and personal effects of his mother Jane Randolph Jefferson after her death. That is the extent of his evidence.
The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, the major public history site on Jefferson, characterizes Jefferson's parents this way: "His father Peter Jefferson was a successful planter and surveyor and his mother Jane Randolph a member of one of Virginia's most distinguished families." They describe the quote in The Johnny Cake Papers as one frequently repeated, but it is attributed in written sources to the 1800 rather than the 1796 election campaign and clearly is one made by political opponents. The Johnny Cake Papers were a collection of folk tales published in 1879, not 1867, and only one tale commented on Jefferson. The Foundation states:
To date we have not found this quotation in any sources contemporary to the election of 1800. Its earliest known appearance in print is actually in a collection of New England folk tales, The Johnny-Cake Papers. First published in 1879, the stories told date in many cases back to the beginning of the 19th century, while others are thought to be even older. The reference in question appears in the "Seventeenth Baking," in which a "most veracious stump orator from Providence" spoke expansively on the achievements of [president] John Adams,
Dixon Wecter, in his essay "Thomas Jefferson, The Gentle Radical," discusses various portrayals of Jefferson by his political enemies, and mentions that "the Jonnycake [sic] Papers later burlesqued such caricatures..."[a][b]
- "...the profound and fearless patriot and full-blooded Yankee, [who] exceeded in every possible respect his competitor, Tom Jefferson, for the Presidency, who, to make the best of him, was nothing but a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father, as was well known in the neighborhood where he was raised, wholly on hoe-cake (made of course-ground Southern corn), bacon, and hominy, with an occasional change of fricasseed bullfrog, for which abominable reptiles he had acquired a taste during his residence among the French in Paris, to whom there could be no question he would sell his country at the first offer made to him cash down, should he be elected to fill the Presidential chair."
Andrew Jackson referred to a charge that his "Mother ... [was] held to public scorn as a prostitute who intermarried with a Negro, and [that his] ... eldest brother [was] sold as a slave in Carolina." Less specific was a rumor of Jackson having "colored blood", meaning having "Negro" ancestry; this was unproven. President Jackson's father was born in Carrickfergus, County Antrim, in current-day Northern Ireland, around 1738. Scholars Hendrik Booraem, Robert Remini, and H. W. Brands are agreed he had no black ancestors.
Abraham Lincoln's mother Nancy Hanks was claimed to have African descent. No reliable historians have supported this. However, history is less clear on who his maternal grandfather was. At one time, Lincoln described him as "a Virginia planter or large farmer" who had taken advantage of a young woman, Lucy Hanks, which encounter led to the birth of Nancy Hanks, Lincoln's mother. Lincoln felt that it was from this aristocratic grandfather that he had inherited "his power of analysis, his logic, his mental activity, his ambition, and all the qualities that distinguished him from the other members and descendants of the Hanks family."
According to historian William E. Barton, a rumor "current in various forms in several sections of the South" was that Lincoln's biological father was Abraham Enloe, which Barton dismissed as "false". According to Doug Wead, Enloe publicly denied this connection to Lincoln but is reported to have privately confirmed it. Another claim was that Lincoln was "part Negro", but that was unproven. Mail received by Lincoln called him "a negro" and a "mulatto". Thomas Lincoln's "complexion [was] swarthy". According to Lincoln's law partner William H. Herndon, Lincoln had "very dark skin" although "his cheeks were leathery and saffron-colored" and "his face was ... sallow," and "his hair was dark, almost black". Abraham Lincoln described himself ca. 1838–'39 as "black" and his "complexion" in 1859 as "dark" but whether he meant either in an ancestral sense is unknown. The Charleston Mercury described him as being "of ... the dirtiest complexion" and asked "Faugh! After him what white man would be President?"
Warren G. Harding
Warren G. Harding was said to have African ancestry; one claim was by his political opponent, a controversial and racist historian, William Estabrook Chancellor. Chancellor said Harding's father was a mulatto and Harding's great-grandmother was black. During Harding's campaign, Democratic opponents spread rumors that Harding's great-great-grandfather was a West Indian black and that other blacks might be found in his family tree. Chancellor publicized rumors, based on supposed family research, but perhaps reflecting no more than local gossip. In an era when the "one-drop rule"[c] would classify a person with any African ancestry as black, and black people in the South had been effectively disfranchised, Harding's campaign manager responded, "no family in the state (of Ohio) has a clearer, a more honorable record than the Hardings', a blue-eyed stock from New England and Pennsylvania, the finest pioneer blood." "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." According to Chancellor, Harding got his only academic degree from Iberia College, which had been "founded to educate fugitive slaves." The college was founded by abolitionist supporters in the Presbyterian Church in Ohio for students of both genders and all races.
"When asked directly about Chancellor's account, Harding did not make any effort to deny that he may have had an African-American ancestor. He said he did not know and demonstrated that it was not a significant issue."
The rumors may have been sustained by a statement Harding allegedly made to newspaperman James W. Faulkner on the subject, which he perhaps meant to be dismissive: "How do I know, Jim? One of my ancestors may have jumped the fence." However, while there are gaps in the historical record, studies of his family tree have not found evidence of an African-American ancestor.
Calvin Coolidge's mother Victoria Moor was claimed to be of a mixed-race family in Vermont. Vaughn noted that her surname was derived from "Moor", the European term for black (it also referred to swarthy). He did not note that another meaning of her surname is the landscape feature of moor or bog. People's surnames were often based on such landscape features when surnames became generally adopted in 14th century England. Moor/Moore is a common name in England, Scotland, and Ireland. Coolidge said his mother had some Native American ancestry.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight D. Eisenhower's mother was said to be of mixed blood from Africa, and his mother was mulatto. Historians and biographers of Eisenhower had documented his parents' German, Swiss and English ancestry and long history in this country. His immigrant ancestors settled in Pennsylvania in 1741 and after, and migrated west to Kansas.
Before the Constitution of the United States was drafted, John Hanson was one of the Presidents of the Continental Congress, and thus not considered one of the Presidents of the United States by mainstream historians. Though he was a white man from Maryland, a false claim has circulated on the Internet claiming that he was actually the first Black President of the United States, the claim including that the black President Hanson appears on the back of the United States two-dollar bill, but that confused the white Hanson with Senator John Hanson, an African-American man with the same name who helped colonize Liberia, while the face on the two-dollar bill is that of Thomas Heyward, Jr., a white man whose face is in shadow in the portrait reproduced on the currency.
- Dr. Leroy Vaughn, Black People & Their Place in History
- Rogers, J. A., The Five Negro Presidents: According to What White People Said They Were (St. Petersburg, Fla.: Helga M. Rogers, 1965; ISBN 0-9602294-8-5).
- Haynes, Monica (February 5, 2008). "Racial heritage of six former presidents is questioned". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Archived from the original on 22 January 2009. Retrieved 2009-01-28. ""Virtually, all we know came from J.A. Rogers," said Dr. Vaughn, who based his chapter on black presidents on Mr. Rogers' research and that of Dr. Auset Bakhufu. Dr. Bakhufu's 1993 book The Six Black Presidents Black Blood: White Masks includes Eisenhower." Vaughn's publisher, Lulu, advertised a self-publication service at its home page, as accessed February 21, 2013.
- "Barack Obama is Not the First "Black President"". All Africa. 2008. Archived from the original on 26 January 2009. Retrieved 2009-01-29. "Another rendering is the one using C. Stone Brown's article titled "Who were the 5 Black Presidents" that appeared in a February 2004 edition of Diversity Inc magazine, ophthalmologist Leroy Brown's book titled Black People and Their Place in History, J.A. Roger's book titled Five Black Presidents and William Herndon's book titled The Hidden Lincoln. These sources together claim six American Presidents who were believed to have had "Black blood": Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Dwight David Eisenhower. These sources, however, do not offer compelling empirical evidence to support their claims. A more empirically grounded source is the article titled "Harding was first 'black president'" that appeared in the Baltimore Sun on October 7, 1998 (p.2A) written by Theo Lippman. The following is a retelling of Lippman's findings."
- Chideya, Farai (June 24, 2008). "Has America Already Had a Black President?". National Public Radio. Retrieved 2009-01-20. "This fall, America could elect its first black president, but according to some, the country has already had a black commander-in-chief. Over time, rumormongers and amateur historians have claimed that Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, Warren Harding, Dwight Eisenhower, Calvin Coolidge, and Abraham Lincoln had black lineage."
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- Hussain, Aysha (2008). "Obama Won't Be First Black President". Diversity. Retrieved 2009-01-20. "Were there other "black" presidents? Some historians have reason to believe people don't really understand the genealogy of past U.S. Presidents. Research shows at least five U.S. presidents had black ancestors and Thomas Jefferson, the nation's third president, was considered the first black president, according to historian Leroy Vaughn, author of Black People and Their Place in World History. Vaughn's research shows Jefferson was not the only former black U.S. president. Who were the others? Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. But why was this unknown? How were they elected president? All five of these presidents never acknowledged their black ancestry."[dead link]
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