Beverly Gage: Was Warren Harding Our First Black President?





[Beverly Gage teaches modern U.S. history at Yale University.]

Will Americans vote for a black president? If the notorious historian William Estabrook Chancellor was right, we already did. In the early 1920s, Chancellor helped assemble a controversial biographical portrait accusing President Warren Harding of covering up his family’s “colored” past. According to the family tree Chancellor created, Harding was actually the great-grandson of a black woman. Under the one-drop rule of American race relations, Chancellor claimed, the country had inadvertently elected its “first Negro president.”...

To anyone who tracks it down today, Chancellor’s book comes across as a laughable partisan screed, an amalgam of bizarre racial theories, outlandish stereotypes and cheap political insults. But it also contains a remarkable trove of social knowledge — the kind of community gossip and oral tradition that rarely appears in official records but often provides clues to richer truths. When he toured Ohio in 1920, Chancellor claimed to find dozens of acquaintances and neighbors willing to swear that the Hardings had been considered black for generations. Among the persuaded, according to rumor, was Harding’s father-in-law, Amos Kling, one of the richest men in Harding’s adopted hometown of Marion. When Harding married his daughter, Florence, in 1891, Kling supposedly denounced her for polluting the family line.

There were rumors of other family scandals as well: the 1849 case in which “one David Butler killed Amos Smith” after Smith claimed that Butler’s wife, a Harding, was black; the suggestion that Harding’s father’s second wife divorced him because he was too much Negro “for her to endure.” In Chancellor’s book, such stories are relayed with a bitter, racist glee — ample reason not to accept them out of hand. But if none of this had any resemblance to the truth, how did all of these rumors get started?

In 1968, the Harding biographer Francis Russell offered an explanation: Harding’s great-great-grandfather Amos told his descendants that he once caught a man killing his neighbor’s apple trees and that the man started the rumor in retaliation — a rather weak story that Russell declined to endorse and that did not silence the mixed-blood rumors. Well into the 1930s, African-Americans claiming a family link continued to pop up in the press. (One decidedly dark-skinned Oliver Harding, supposedly the president’s great-uncle, appeared in Abbott’s Monthly, a black-owned Chicago magazine, in 1932.) As recently as 2005, a Michigan schoolteacher named Marsha Stewart issued her own claim to Harding ancestry. “While growing up,” she wrote, “we were never allowed to talk about the relationship to a U.S. president outside family gatherings because we were ‘colored’ and Warren was ‘passing.’ ”...



comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list