Harding was first 'black president' Blood: Some think of President Clinton as the first African-American president -- at least in terms of lifestyle and upbringing. But Warren G. Harding was accused of having "Negro" blood in his veins.

SUN JOURNAL

October 07, 1998|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Black Americans overwhelmingly and wholeheartedly support President Clinton, while majorities of whites have become critical of him and have even begun to abandon him, according to some polls.

Striving to explain that, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson said this in a recent interview on Public Broadcasting's "The NewsHour": "The president is actually culturally very Afro-American." And Nobel Prize novelist Toni Morrison went so far as to say in a New Yorker piece, "Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: White skin notwithstanding, this is our first black president."

Wrong. Warren G. Harding was our first black president.

Patterson and Morrison were not speaking of racial inheritance, but cultural.

She wrote, "After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas."

Patterson said, "Southern culture is black. I mean, it is powerfully influenced by African-Americans, and all white Southerners are very black. Most of them deny it; he doesn't."

But when Harding, who was elected president in 1920, was called "Negro" before, during and after his election campaign, it was not his culture his critics meant. They said he was directly descended from blacks. He had "black blood."

There were several versions of the Harding family's black origins. The most prevalent and earliest version said the president's great-great-grandfather, Amos, who pioneered and settled in Blooming Grove, Ohio, was "a West Indian Negro."

Each generation of Hardings after him, as they grew up in Ohio in the 19th century, was teased and persecuted by schoolmates as "part black" -- and worse descriptives. Even in the nonslave North and West, race-consciousness then was much more widespread and cruel than it is today.

Amos Harding told his grandchildren late in life that the story about him was the lie of an enemy. But Warren Harding told at least one friend that he thought it might be true.

In any event, the rumor persisted into his generation and into his adult life. When as a newspaper editor in Marion, Ohio, he feuded with a rival paper, its editors dismissed him in print as a "kink-haired youth" -- which it made clear was a racial reference. Later as Harding rose in prominence in business and civic life in Ohio, the rumors persisted, especially when he ran for office.

The rumors never had any impact, nor circulated much beyond Marion. But in 1920, when Senator Harding was among those being considered for the Republican presidential nomination, the stories became more widespread.

The party's national convention was held in Chicago that year. Prof. William Estabrook Chancellor of Ohio's Wooster College arrived and made the rounds of delegations with fliers alleging that Harding had not one but two lines of black ancestors.

In addition to great-great-grandfather Amos Harding, he had a "Negress" great-grandmother, the wife of Amos Harding's son. Chancellor said Warren Harding's candidacy was part of a plan to create a "Haitian-type" United States. Chancellor was as segregationist as any Southerner, opposing, for example, allowing blacks to vote.

There is a good sketch of Chancellor and detailed summary of his history in Francis Russell's "The Shadow of Blooming Grove." Chancellor was a Woodrow Wilson Democrat, and before he began his white-supremacist harangues in print and lecture, he had been a respected author and academician. His rabid efforts in Chicago were to no avail, and Harding was nominated.

Chancellor with unknown backers then began widespread circulation of his racist pamphlets in Ohio. They seemed to be having little effect outside the state -- until a Dayton newspaper editor attacked them in print. That led to stories in a number of national newspapers, including the New York Times.

Chancellor went national, with a pamphlet he addressed "To the Men and Women of America." In a decade in which the Ku Klux Klan had political influence, this pamphlet was as racist and demeaning to blacks as anything the terrorist organization ever issued.

Democratic leaders, including President Woodrow Wilson, were urged by party functionaries to make the charges even more publicized, but they declined.

However, some Democratic supporters paid for the printing and distribution of the pamphlet outside Ohio. Wilson finally directed the Post Office Department to confiscate Chancellor's work.

Political historians, Prof. Donald R. McCoy suggests in his essay on 1920 in the encyclopedic "History of American Presidential Elections," agree that the rumors about Harding's racial genealogy had no impact on the vote outside the South and only slight impact there. He was elected president in a landslide. He got 60 percent of the popular vote to 34 percent for James Cox (also an Ohio newspaper owner), his Democratic opponent.

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