The Other First “Black” President

hardinBlackademicians, I’d like to apologize for the lack of posts recently. My wife and I just had a baby boy, so I gave myself a little hiatus from the blogsphere. I returned to find an interesting article forwarded to me from fellow contributor, Weusi Baraka. The article, entitled “Barack Obama is not the First Black President,” focuses on the 29th president of the United States, Warren Gamaliel Harding (pictured here). Author Abdul Karim Bangura, a professor at Howard University, raises some very interesting points and historical facts that I was unaware of. Check out an excerpt of the article here:

There are several sources that have discussed the notion of the “first Black President” of the United States. These sources range from the ridiculous to the interesting. Toni Morrison, for example, called Bill Clinton “the first black president” in her October 1998 New Yorker article. Her condescending characterization is that while Clinton is White, culturally, he “displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.” There is also the story of John Hanson, a “Black” man, a Moor, who is said to have been the “first President of the United States from 1781 to 1782 under the Articles of Confederation,” making George Washington the first President under the United States Constitution.

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 yield six American Presidents 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.

President Harding’s Black origins are traced to the President’s great-great grandfather, Amos Harding, “a West Indian Negro” who pioneered and settled in Blooming Grove, Ohio. Each generation of the Hardings after Amos, as they grew up in Ohio in the 19th Century, was teased and presented by schoolmasters as “part black” and other racist descriptors. Race consciousness was widespread and cruel even in the non-slave states in the North and West. To ease his grandchildren’s anxiety, Amos Harding late in his life told them that the story about his Black lineage was the lie of an enemy. Nonetheless, Warren Harding told one of his friends that the story was true. The rumors persisted into his generation and into his adult life. When Warren, as a newspaper editor in Marion, Ohio, had a feud with a rival paper, its editors dismissed him as a “kink haired youth,” a reference to his race. The rumors circulated widely in the state when Harding rose to prominence in business and civic life in Ohio and decided to run for office. The rumors’ impact was minimal and did not circulate beyond Ohio until 1920 when Senator Harding was being considered among others for the Republican presidential nomination. The story became widespread when Professor William Estabrook Chancellor of Wooster College arrived at the party’s convention and made the rounds of delegations with fliers stating that Harding had not one but two lines of Black ancestors. Chancellor revealed that in addition to Amos Harding being Warren’s great-great grandfather, he also had a “Negress” great grandmother. The pamphlets were distributed widely in Ohio, but they were having very little effect outside the state until a Dayton newspaper editor attacked them in print. That led to a number of stories about the issue in other national newspapers, including the New York Times. Chancellor went national with a pamphlet he titled “To the Men and Women of America.” In a decade that saw the Ku Klux Klan exert a great deal of political influence, the pamphlet was as racist and demeaning to Blacks as anything the terrorist organization ever issued. Democratic leaders, including President Woodrow Wilson, were urged by some of the party’s advisers to publicize the pamphlet and its content more widely, but the leaders declined. Nonetheless, some Democratic supporters paid for the printing and distribution of numerous copies of the pamphlet outside Ohio. This action prompted Wilson to directly order the United States Post Office to confiscate copies of Chancellor’s pamphlet. In his essay, “The Election of 1920,” that appeared in the book edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Fred L. Israel titled History of American Presidential Elections (1971), Professor Donald R. McCoy states that political historians are in agreement that the rumors about Harding’s racial genealogy had no impact on the vote outside the South, as he was elected President by a landslide. He received 60 percent of the popular vote to 31 percent for James Cox, his Democratic opponent who was also a newspaper owner.

Abdul Karim Bangura is professor of Research Methodology and Political Science at Howard University in Washington, DC. His brief biography and contact information can the found here. Read the entire article here.

3 Comments to ‘The Other First “Black” President’:

  1. Sondjata on 3 Dec 2008 at 2:40 pm: 1

    It is absolutely stunning the lengths people will go to now a days to make someone “black.”

    Great-Great grand father you say? So that’s. one, two, three, four generations before you reach an ancestor that could be called “negro.” And in those times you could be 1/4 “black” and STILL be called a negro.

    This one drop rule is truely silly.

  2. CUdanceGirl on 7 Dec 2008 at 8:23 am: 2

    It seems unfortunate to compare a man with superior intellect and very deserving of his place as our President-elect to Warren Harding, who I believe was viewed as one of the most ineffective Presidents in our history. (Ever heard of the Warren Harding Error…read Blink by Malcom Gladwell) While I am truly proud that Barack Obama will be our next President, I am also a little irritated by media labeling him “The First Black President.” It sounds like a soundbite because to say “Our first biracial president” sounds too long or could confuse people who don’t know what biracial is.

  3. Selam on 15 Dec 2008 at 11:04 am: 3

    Congratulations Pierce. I think you will be a wonderful father.

    Peace & Love

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Published on December 1, 2008 at 10:04 pm. 3 Comments.
Filed under academia,history.