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Viewpoints: Eye on History: Several men of color have served as U.S. presidents

By Eva M. Doyle

SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

Historian Joel Augustus Rogers wrote a book in 1965, “The Five Negro Presidents,” which provided evidence that several presidents had partial black ancestry. He identified four of the five presidents in his book: Warren G. Harding, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln.

Rogers did not identify the fifth president due to the lack of documentation at that time. He wrote that “the fifth president will not be named here. There seems to be no published research on his ancestry, as in the case of Harding.”

The evidence is strongest for Harding. According to Dr. Leroy Vaughn, an ophthalmologist and a leading authority on black history, when Republicans called on Harding to deny his Negro history, he said, “How should I know whether or not one of my ancestors might have jumped the fence?” This was recorded in Vaughn’s 2002 book, “Black People and Their Place in World History.”

William Chancellor, a white professor from Wooster College in Ohio, went on to identify black ancestors among both of Harding’s parents. Chancellor noted that Harding received his education in a school founded for fugitive slaves. Harding’s genealogical records are interesting. His grandfather is described as having “curly, kinky hair and a dark complexion.”

Chancellor described his information on the 29th president in his 1922 book, “Warren Gamaliel Harding, President of the United States: A Review of Facts Collected from Anthropological, Historical and Political Research.”

The Harding children attended the Parkman Academy School for fugitive slaves. This information is recorded in the 2005 book, “Death by Blackness,” written by Marsha Stewart, a descendant of Harding. Several books have also been written about his death. Author Gaston Means wrote about it in his 1930 book, “The Strange Death of President Harding.”

In the early history of this country, people believed that if a person had one drop of black blood, he or she should be considered a person of color. There are hundreds of cases of individuals passing for white. Several presidents fell into this category, and at least one vice president.

Thomas Jefferson, our third president, was referenced as the son of a Native American woman and a Virginia mulatto father. This was recorded in Thomas Hazard’s 1867 book, “The Johnny Cake Papers.”

Andrew Jackson was our seventh president. It was noted in the Virginia Magazine of History that he was the son of an Irish woman and a black man. This can also be found in the 1960 book, “Ordeal of the Presidency,” by David Coyle.

Abraham Lincoln is an interesting case. He was described in many early publications as having dark skin and coarse hair. He had a black barber from Haiti who cut his hair for 20 years. His vice president during his first term was Hannibal Hamlin, who had served as a senator from Maine. He was often attacked from the floor because of his dark skin.

Calvin Coolidge, our 30th president, was likely the fifth president on Rogers’ list. Coolidge was Harding’s vice president and succeeded him after his death. Vaughn noted Coolidge’s mother’s maiden name was Moor. Moor was the name given to black people in Europe. It had its origin in Africa.

In addition to Barack Obama, it is possible there is another president of color. I will not name him because the documentation is insufficient. However, his name is widely known among writers on this topic. More research is needed. The information is not easy to find. Researchers must be willing to really dig deep into American history.

The presidency of the United States is filled with secrets and mystery. The million-dollar question is: How many other presidents of color have resided in the White House?

Eva M. Doyle has been a columnist for the Criterion newspaper for 38 years.

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