African-American heritage of presidents of the United States
The African-American heritage of United States presidents relates mostly to questions and claims made by amateur historians as to whether five presidents of the United States who were accepted as white also had significant recent African ancestry. There is no disagreement that President Barack Obama (2009–2017) had a Kenyan father and an American mother of mostly European ancestry (she and Obama are thought also to be descended from the African indentured servant known in colonial records as John Punch). The academic consensus of historians is that no president other than Obama has had recent (from the colonial period in U.S. history or after) African ancestry; it rejects claims to the contrary.
- 1 Background
- 2 Significance of claims
- 3 Claims of African heritage
- 4 Franklin D. Roosevelt's ancestor's birth in Africa to English ancestors
- 5 See also
- 6 Notes
- 7 References
- 8 External links
These claims have been made by the historian William Estabrook Chancellor, amateur historian J. A. Rogers, ophthalmologist Leroy William Vaughn, and 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 that five presidents of the United States, widely accepted as white, also had African ancestry. Vaughn's and BaKhufu's books also appear to have been self-published.
Historians' and biographers' studies of these presidents have not supported such claims, nor have the claims been published in any peer-reviewed journal. These authors 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 have 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 had to have at least seven-eighths European 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 were accepted as white and full citizens 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 on the frontier when few records were kept and people often did not know much about their origins.
This classification of ancestry and social class was separate from the legal status derived from partus sequitur ventrem, the law that made children born to slave 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 recorded as and considered as black in the binary society. 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 that numerous mixed-race families of varying proportions of European and African ancestry developed 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 were 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. Because the white women were free, their mixed-race children were born free.
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, who were seven-eighths white. 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 conclusion.
Claims of African heritage
President Barack Obama had a Kenyan father and an American mother of mostly European ancestry. A conspiracy theory 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. Drawing on a combination of historical documents and Y-DNA analysis, Ancestry.com stated in July 2012 that it is a strong likelihood that Obama is an eleventh great-grandson of the African John Punch, who was formerly an indentured servant and later a slave, through his mother Stanley Ann Dunham. Punch lived in the Colony of Virginia during the seventeenth century.
None of the claims below have been verified by reliable sources in peer-reviewed publications. Mainline historians do not support these claims.
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,
- "...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."
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]
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 rumor 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.
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 Gorge 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".
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" would classify a person with any African ancestry as black, and black people in the South had been effectively disenfranchised, 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", a European term for people of North Africa. 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.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight D. Eisenhower's mother was said to be of mixed blood from Africa and mulatto. However, historians and biographers of Eisenhower had documented his parents' German, Swiss and English ancestry and long history in America. Some of his immigrant ancestors settled in Pennsylvania in 1741 and after, migrated west to Kansas.
Related unverified claims
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 was that he was actually the first Black President of the United States; the claim conflated the white Hanson with Senator John Hanson, an African-American man with the same name who helped colonize Liberia.
Franklin D. Roosevelt's ancestor's birth in Africa to English ancestors
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had an ancestor born in North Africa. His ancestor Henry Smith was born to English parents Col. William "Tangier" and Martha (Tunstall) Smith in Tangier in present-day Morocco on 19 Jan. 1678/9. While Smith's parents were married in Tangier in 1675, they were both born in England and were of European ancestry. The Mayorship of Tangiers held by Col. William Smith has been used by his descendants to distinguish themselves from other Smith through use of the compound surname Tangiers Smith ever since.
- Dr. Leroy Vaughn, Black People & Their Place in History Archived January 24, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
- 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 DiversityInc 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.
- Gage, Beverly (April 6, 2008). "Our First Black President?". The New York Times. Archived from the original on December 10, 2008. Retrieved 2009-01-20.
- Mlynar, Bobbi (November 5, 2008). "Is Obama the first black president?". Emporia Gazette. Archived from the original on December 10, 2008. Retrieved 2009-01-20.
'(I)f we go with George Washington as our first (American president), then Obama would be No. 7,' said Terrell, department chairman and associate professor of sociology at Emporia State University, who received his doctorate in sociology from Iowa State University. 'But we have six presidents whose parents — five mothers, one father — had black blood. But we never claimed that for these folks.'
- Hussain, Aysha (2009). "Obama Won't Be First Black President" (PDF). North Dallas Gazette (published from Diversity original from 2008). Retrieved 2016-01-29.
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.
- Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.
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- Leroy William Vaughn (2002). Black People and Their Place in History. Lulu.com. p. 142. ISBN 0-9715920-0-4.
- Nock, Albert Jay, Jefferson (N.Y.: Hill & Wang (American Century ser.), 1st Am. Century ser. edn September 1960, 3rd printing November 1963, copyright 1926 (apparently [pbk.])), p. 141, citing The Johnnycake Papers (in another ed., possibly p. 233).
- Taylor, Coley, & Samuel Middlebrook, The Eagle Screams (N.Y.: Macaulay, 1936), p. 77 and see p. 76 (campaign of 1796), citing Nock, A. J., Jefferson.
- B., D. S., Dim View (sidebar), in Broder, David S., Why the Candidates are Targets for Mudslingers, in The New York Times, September 27, 1964, last page of article, as accessed in ProQuest April 30, 2012, 7:15:39 p.m. (campaign in 1796).
- Taylor, Coley, et al., The Eagle Screams, op. cit., p. 67.
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Without hyphen & "u": Taylor, Coley, et al., The Eagle Screams, op. cit., p. 77 and see p. 76, citing Nock, A. J., Jefferson.
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- Coyle, David Cushman, Ordeal of the Presidency (Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1960), p. 127 (author graduate of Princeton & Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute).
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Moor is a variant of Moore. Moore Name Meaning and History: 1. English: from Middle English more 'moor', 'marsh', 'fen', 'area of uncultivated land' (Old English mor), hence a topographic name for someone who lived in such a place or a habitational name from any of the various places named with this word, as for example Moore in Cheshire or More in Shropshire. 2. English: from Old French more 'Moor' (Latin maurus). The Latin term denoted a native of northwestern Africa, but in medieval England the word came to be used informally as a nickname for any swarthy or dark-skinned person.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
- Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum Archived February 23, 2009, at the Wayback Machine, includes Home and Tomb, and photo of parents, Official website, accessed 30 January 2009.
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FDR had an African-born great-great-great-great-grandfather
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