Racial heritage of six former presidents is questioned

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Today, as Sen. Barack Obama takes what he hopes will be one more step toward becoming the nation's first black president, the Internet is filled with stories that state such a milestone already has been reached -- several times over.

The political ascent of Mr. Obama, a man of mixed racial heritage who identifies himself as black, has reignited the discussion of presidential ethnicity that dates as far back as Thomas Jefferson. The third president of the United States was described by a political opponent as the "son of a half-breed Indian squaw and a Virginia mulatto father."

In addition to Jefferson, the books, magazines and newspaper articles found on the Web name five other U.S. presidents who may have had black ancestry, but never publicly acknowledged it: Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Despite author Toni Morrison's infamous 1998 declaration, Bill Clinton was not on the list.

Van Hall, associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, said it is unlikely that most of the men on the list had black ancestry because historians know their genealogy pretty well.

While he concedes he hasn't researched the issue, Larry Glasco, also an associate professor of history at Pitt, is also skeptical of the stories.

"I would guess if [the stories] were really true we'd have heard a lot more about them," Dr. Glasco said. "There would have been a lot more written about them in professional research literature."

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.

Whether the stories are true or not, they've become a hot topic. Information about much of the ethnic links are found in historical works written long ago and anecdotes have been passed from one publication to the next. However, as far as anyone knows, no DNA tests have been conducted to definitively confirm the ethnic links.

In August, Albert B. Southwick, a columnist for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette in Massachusetts, wrote about the possibility of Mr. Obama not being the first black president.

Mr. Southwick, who describes himself as a student of American history, cites the oft-repeated story that Mr. Harding, the 29th president, had black ancestors on his mother's and father's side of the family. The talk dogged Mr. Harding throughout his political career. When a friend asked him about it, Mr. Harding is reported to have said, "How do I know, Jim? One of my ancestors may have jumped the fence."

The column also cites the work of William Estabrook Chancellor, a professor at Wooster College in Wooster, Ohio, and a staunch believer in white superiority. Mr. Chancellor extensively researched Mr. Harding's family tree, which he said included a number of black ancestors such as his great-grandmother, Elizabeth Madison Harding.

Aysha Hussain cited Los Angeles historian Dr. Leroy Vaughn's 2001 book "Black People and Their Place in History" as the main source for her February 2007 article in Diversity Inc. magazine "Obama Wouldn't Be First Black President."

"President Andrew Jackson, the nation's seventh president, was in office between 1829 and 1837," Ms. Hussain writes. "Vaughn cites an article written in the Virginia Magazine of History 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."

Dr. Vaughn's book includes 30 chapters on the untold history of black people. However, it is the single chapter on "black" presidents that gets the most attention, he said in an interview.

In that chapter, Dr. Vaughn writes about one paragraph on each of the aforementioned presidents, most of which cites previously published anecdotes.

Shouldn't there be more of a paper trail to connect these men to their black ancestors?

"Remember you're talking about a president," Dr. Vaughn said. "I would say just the opposite; that whatever evidence there is, it would be destroyed."

For example, he mentions "The Johnny Cake Papers" of 1867 that stated when President Jefferson's mother died, he destroyed all her papers, portraits and personal effects. He even wrote every person who received letters from his mother to return them. Dr. Vaughn said this seemed strange behavior for a man who saved more than 18,000 of his own documents. He concludes that Jefferson must have been trying to hide something.

Several of the claims that these presidents were of mixed racial heritage came from political opponents in an attempt to smear them. For example, President Lincoln, described as being dark with coarse hair, was depicted in a cartoon drawing by rivals as "Abraham Africanus the First."

"That's not an uncommon occurrence in American politics," said Russell Riley, presidential scholar at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs. "Because race is such a sensitive issue in American politics, it is an easy target for an unscrupulous campaigner to make a claim that somebody has a particular ancestry that the majority of the population is less likely to support."

Mr. Riley said with today's DNA mapping techniques it would be easy to prove or disprove these claims.

"I don't think it would be terribly surprising to find that a president did have some blood of African descent," he said. "Particularly in the South, where there tended to be so much closeness between black and white."

There was no such thing as DNA mapping when the late historian J.A. Rogers wrote his book, "Five Black Presidents," self-published in 1965, which serves as the basis for most of the more recently published works on the subject.

"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.

Mr. Rogers, well known among historians, was a prolific writer who traveled the world to document the untold history of people of African descent. He spent time in Europe, Egypt, the Sudan and West Africa, prior to becoming a war correspondent for the Pittsburgh Courier in 1935.

Dr. Vaughn said he is not impressed by any of the so-called "black" presidents because they did little, if anything, for black people.

"I'm not sure why we worship any of these guys or hold them in high esteem as far as their ancestry goes," he said. "I think if Barack wasn't running it probably wouldn't be so fascinating."


Monica Haynes can be reached at mhaynes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1660.


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