Black Blood in the White House

The air these days is full of talk about having a black American run for the Presidency or Vice-Presidency this year. A number of black groups have been meeting on this and related issues. Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine recently voiced his opinion that a President could not be elected in 1972 with a black running-mate--a view he took pains to say he came to with regret. Since then, Muskie has met with agreement and disagreement from both sides of the color line.

Now a staff member of the National Opinion Research Center has proposed in the New York Times Magazine that black civil-rights leader Andrew Young is an obvious person to run for Vice-President. Sen. Brooke of Massachusetts recently said, "The time is not far off when a black will be elected Vice-President, and 1972 could be the year," adding that he himself, the Senate's sole Negro, would accept the Republican nomination for Vice-President if President Nixon offered it to him.

Rep. Shirley Chisholm of New York, the nation's first black Congresswoman, has announced that she will enter at least four or five of this year's Presidential primaries herself. And a made-for-TV movie, "The Man," to be screened later this season, starts with the premise of a black man as President.

The most surprising thing about all of this is the widely held belief that it is new. In politics memories are notoriously short. Thus we find the just-published biography of Julian Bond making the erroneous assertion that Bond was "the first black man in the history of the country to be proposed for the job of Vice-President"--a claim that is constantly being iterated elsewhere. The idea of a black President or Vice-President is, actually, far from novel. And all the current discussion needs to be placed in its historical context. This context has two main aspects.

First is the series of claims that five Presidents and one Vice-President in our history all had some Negro ancestry, Thomas Jefferson being the earliest one so described. As one might expect, much of this was just gossip circulated over the years with a view to alienating voters, especially those in the South.

Those interested in this subject may start by consulting the evidence marshalled by the late historian-anthropologist Joel A. Rogers in his multi-volume Sex and Race and his later pamphlet The Five Negro Presidents. Rogers was an indefatigable digger, and carefully cited his sources. At the same time, those familiar with his extensive oeuvre know that he, a Negro himself, tended to be overzealous in drawing conclusions from his data.

Still, it is possible to make a case of sorts to support the claim that Abraham Lincoln had some black forebears. Rogers also badly states that Hannibal Hamlin, who was Vice-President during the Civil War, "was undoubtedly of Negro ancestry." This topic is further discussed both in the old biography of Hamlin by his grandson and in a new one. Nobody disputes that Hamlin had jet-black hair and eyes, a broad nose, and very dark skin.

The most persistent claim of mixed blood attaches to Warren G. Harding, and to other members of his family going back several generations before his. The issue of his alleged black blood figured in all Harding's political campaigns, becoming most intense in the Presidential campaign of 1920. The recent freshet of scholarship on Harding has sifted and resifted the evidence. In the process a substantial amount has been clarified and some of it rightly dismissed; but there remains plenty to buttress the claim, and the matter is by no means resolved. Harding himself didn't know whether he really had some Negro blood or not; and he is reported commenting to a friend. "How should I know? One of my ancestors might have jumped the fence."

Of course none of the above office-holders promoted himself as a person with a measure of black genes. This brings us to the second aspect of our historical context: the self-proclaimed black Americans who have been put forth for one of the top two spots on the ticket. This is where people invoke the name of Julian Bond, who had already run up a number of votes for Vice-President at the 1968 Democratic convention when he took the microphone to remove his name on the grounds that, at age 28, he failed to meet the Constitutional requirement.

It does not detract one bit from this impressive young Georgian to point out that his nomination was not the "first" so widely claimed for it. We must go back just short of a century for the pioneering precedent.

In 1872 hundreds of women's suffragists organized the new National Radical Reformers Party, and nominated as its Presidential candidate the colorful and eccentric Victoria Claflin Woodhull. After pondering a half dozen choices for Vice-President, the convention enthusiastically selected a black man in absentia. This was none other than Frederick Douglass, who needs no identification: suffice it to say that Douglass was not only as great a black man as our country has produced, but also as great a man of any color. Although it was at once reported in the press that Douglass "will not decline," the fact is that he simply ignored the party and his nomination, and instead went about his business of campaigning vigorously for the successful Ulysses S. Grant.

The election of 1904 saw the first Negro run for President. This was George Edwin Taylor of Iowa, a one-time editor of several newspapers. A former delegate to both Republican and Democratic conventions, he became disillusioned with the major parties and was chosen to head the ticket of the newly established National Liberal Party, which revived many of the principles of the defunct Whigs.

But even if one looks at only the major parties, the nineteenth century beckons again. This time we come upon a man who is less well known than he deserves: Blanche Kelso Bruce. Born into slavery, Bruce as a young man opened and taught Kansas' first grade school for black children. He eventually became the first Negro to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate (1875-81), where he vainly fought against a bill to exclude Chinese immigration and fought for the rights of American Indians. He was later named to important posts by Presidents Garfield, Harrison, and McKinley.

At the four Republican conventions from 1872 to 1884, Bruce was a delegate-at-large from Mississippi. In 1880 he temporarily took over the chair, and later was one of nine men to garner votes for Vice-President (from the Indians, Louisiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin delegations). Had Bruce won the party's endorsement and history otherwise remained the same, Bruce would have become President on the assassination of Garfield. At the 1888 convention, which Bruce did not attend, he again received some votes for Vice-President (from Georgia and his own state of Mississippi).

From Reconstruction until the 1930's, black Americans over-whelmingly supported Republican candidates. During Franklin Roosevelt's first term the pendulum swung, and they have voted heavily Democratic ever since.