Were there black presidents before Obama?

January 6, 2017

Dear Cecil:

As you discussed back in 1991, in the pre-civil-rights-era U.S., “one drop of black blood” was often enough to label a person as black. Aside from President Obama, have there been any other American presidents who under the one-drop rule would have been considered black?

Cecil replies:

Around the time of the 2008 election, some may remember, every piddly rumor about a former POTUS’s possible African heritage got a good airing under click-friendly headlines like “Is Barack Obama Really Our First Black President?” I won’t keep you in suspense — most professional historians agree he probably is. Which is a sign of a likely cover-up, according to Dr. Leroy Vaughn, whose writings claim unacknowledged African descent for a number of previous presidents. His evidence? ”Whatever evidence there is, it would be destroyed,” says Vaughn, who like any good conspiracy theorist finds proof of his belief in the apparent lack of proof.

Vaughn, a Los Angeles ophthalmologist, is the author of the self-published Black People and Their Place in World History (2002), setting him in a line of black researchers who’ve sought to identify prominent, ostensibly white historical figures as having had African ancestry. The most famous of these was Joel Augustus Rogers, a respected journalist whose work nonetheless included the 1965 pamphlet The Five Negro Presidents, which, Henry Louis Gates has written, “would get the ‘Black History Wishful Thinking Prize,’ hands down.” Vaughn, though, cites Rogers as his most important source. Thus far, the roster of presidents alleged to have been secretly black includes Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Harding, Coolidge, and Eisenhower.

It’s an irony, of course, that in order to make the case that black Americans have regularly occupied the White House, Vaughn and his precursors often have to rely on stories of mixed-race parentage that originated as racist smears (a not uncommon political gambit in times past, as discussed here in a recent column on campaign trash talk). Thus Andrew Jackson is determined to have had a black father based on would-be damning stories told by his enemies, and Vaughn makes much of a claim about Thomas Jefferson — namely that he was “the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father” — that didn’t pop up till after the Civil War. Contemporary mentions of Abraham Lincoln having “woolly hair” and caricatures of him as “Abraham Africanus the First” are probably better understood as anti-abolitionist race-baiting rather than evidence about his actual lineage.

But in the secretly-black-president biz, any rumor of illegitimacy is also considered de facto proof of black parentage. Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks, may have been born to unmarried parents — ergo, she was mixed-race. Abe’s own paternity has long been disputed, with as many as 16 men IDed as possible papas other than poor Thomas Lincoln, who (depending on who you ask) was either rendered sterile by the mumps, mysteriously castrated, or cursed with testicles “no larger than peas.” From here it’s just one mighty leap to the conclusion that Abe’s ethnic background has been swept under the rug.

Calvin Coolidge must’ve been black, Vaughn asserts, because his mom’s maiden name was Moor. (By this logic, Hugo Black was our first African-American Supreme Court justice.) Furthermore, Coolidge’s mother was rumored to have a Native American forebear. That’s more so-called proof — in a 1993 book, another black-president theorist, Auset BaKhufu, argues that by 1800 Native Americans in New England had become thoroughly intermingled with the local black population. As for Eisenhower: well, in 2004 a New York Times piece noted that “for decades there have been questions about the possible mixed-race ancestry of Ida Stover,” Ike’s mom, while providing no further context; the idea seems ultimately based on nothing more than Stover's appearance in her 1885 wedding photograph.

But at least one set of rumors has pretty well been put to rest. A 2015 DNA test of Warren Harding’s relatives found “no detectable genetic signatures of sub-Saharan African heritage,” suggesting less than a 5 percent chance that Harding had a black ancestor within four generations. Claims to the contrary had been promoted nearly a century earlier by an Ohio academic and Harding-hater named William Estabrook Chancellor and allegedly spread around by Harding’s irate father-in-law. These claims proved particularly persistent — Harding’s grandniece recalled her family telling her about a passerby who had peeked into her baby carriage and explained, “Just wanted to see if she was black.”

For the other such stories, their supporters’ last line of defense is “Well, you can’t prove it’s not true” — an all-too-common rhetorical move in these credulous times. Of course, if you trace anyone’s lineage back far enough, who knows what you’ll find; rewind a couple thousand generations and we’re all African, so under the one-drop rule, there’s no such thing as a white person. Which there really isn’t anyway, just as “black blood” doesn’t exist — science has established that traditional race categories don’t line up well with any underlying genetic distinction. But it's just about impossible to convince some people there’s no hidden history of black presidents — or at least no easier than convincing other people that our actual black president wasn’t born in Kenya.

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