Posts Tagged ‘Warren Harding’

Seven African Ancestry Presidents?

March 9, 2010

The media refer to Barack Obama as the first African ancestry president, but as many as six other presidents may have had African ancestors. Like many other white Americans, they may or may not have known about African ancestors.

Skin color depends on only about seven genes which means if sex occurs across the color line frequently enough, the dark pigment genes could be lost in some children in a few generations.

After the broadcast of the Roots miniseries, many Americans decided to research their ancestry. Many whites were surprised to find ancestors who had served in the military in the 19th Century who had the letter “C” after their names meaning “colored”.

President Warren G. Harding had black cousins and admitted that some of his ancestors might have “jumped the fence” as he put it.

Many believe that President Dwight Eisenhower’s mother appears to have African features in her wedding photo. I’ve seen the enlarged photo at the Eisenhower museum. If I were to see an actor with a similar appearance in an old black and white movie about the pre-Civil War South, I wouldn’t be surprised if her character was a slave.

Some have suggested that 19th Century Presidents Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln might have had African ancestry fathers. President Calvin Coolidge is another with possible African ancestors.

Those who argue that genealogical records fail to indicate these men had African ancestors, ignore the fact that birth records for much of the nation’s history depended on the honor system. Many records come from family Bibles and it would have been easy to “steal an ID” particularly in families who moved from generation to generation. Families could have neglected to mention an ancestor with a questionable past, such as being a runaway slave or a criminal.

I don’t know if any of these presidents had African ancestors, but I recognize it would have been possible for them, or the rest of us, to have had such ancestors without leaving a record of that ancestry.

The only people likely to question a politician’s ancestry in the 19th Century would have been political opponents who would likely have been ignored by many because of the name calling that characterized American politics beginning with the administration of George Washington. Supporters of these politicians might have invented stories to make these presidents look better such as the story about George Washington cutting down his father’s cherry tree..

The first African “servants” in the British colonies arrived in Jamestown in 1619 and Africans and poor whites initially worked together equally in the fields as indentured servants. This practice would have led to sex across the color line. Some Africans became free and had their own farms. Antonio the Negro arrived in Virginia in 1621. He later became free, changed his name to Anthony Johnson and eventually had his own farm with indentured servants. (Note: the Spanish had imported African slaves into Florida and Georgia in the 16th Century.)

White servitude was abandoned in part because it was too easy for escaped white servants to blend in on the frontier. Lighter skinned descendent’s of Africans would have been able to do the same thing long before the American Revolution.

The frontier early became a place people could run to to escape their past which could include knowledge about their ancestors. Some of my ancestors moved to the frontier from New York City after the Revolution because they had supported the losing side.

Those on the frontier spent much of their time outside and would have had sun darkened skin. The small frontier populations could have led to marrying whomever was available, as my ancestors did, without much concern about a spouse’s ancestry.

Members of religious groups who opposed slavery might have allowed light skinned runaway slaves to take the ID of a relative who died as a child or have made up a relative to make it easier for an escaped slave to “pass for white”..

It would have been much easier to cover up unpopular ancestry in the 19th Century than today. Some people believe Jefferson, who saved many of his own documents, attempted to destroy his mother’s documents, including letters sent to others, to cover up his ancestry. His virtual marriage to slave Sally Hennings indicates he didn’t consider color important which could indicate he had mixed ancestry himself.

Most blacks lived on plantations and what happened on the plantation likely stayed on the plantation. Many plantation wives might have tired of having babies early and encouraged their husbands to have mistresses.

Light skinned offspring might have been claimed by their fathers as children of their wives. It would have been easy to cover up who the mother was because the midwife who delivered it was probably a slave. Plantation wives might have used slaves as surrogate moms like Jacob’s wives did in the Bible.

Even today a woman may lie about who fathered her child. Some have suggested Lincoln’s mother may have done this because of accounts that the man listed as his father might have been sterile.

People looked down on women who didn’t have children through the 19th Century. Some women might have arranged to quietly adopt the light skinned babies of slaves to cover up their inability to have children or to replace a child who was stillborn or died in infancy. Slave mothers might have welcomed the opportunity to have their babies escape slavery.

Ida Elizabeth Stover, Eisenhower’s mother, could have been such a baby because she was born in 1862 in Virginia to a 40 year old woman. Even with today’s medical knowledge there is a greater potential for problems at that age. Information about some of her ancestors is missing from the family tree on the Eisenhower Museum website so their origin is unknown. Considering her fair complexion, she would likely have been separated from any African ancestor by three or more generations.

I don’t know if these presidents had any African ancestors, but I realize it would be possible . It would also be possible for the rest of us who think of ourselves as white to have had one or more African ancestors. The number of our ancestors increases rapidly when we go back more than a few generations. At 10 generations in the past, we potentially have 1,024 ancestors, provided there is no duplication.

See my next post for a discussion of why skin color isn’t important.