Curtis, Hoover's VP, Touted Mixed-Race Heritage

Only one mixed-race candidate has won on a presidential ticket: Herbert Hoover's vice president, Charles Curtis. Curtis was half-Native American, a fact he touted during the 1928 campaign. He rose from a Kaw reservation to the national stage.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Now, here's the story about a candidate with roots in Kansas, an American of mixed race whose background straddles two cultures. This is not the story of Barack Obama.

NPR's Nate DiMeo tells us about Charles Curtis, the 31st vice president of the United States and the only multiracial candidate to win on a presidential ticket.

NATE D: You can be forgiven if you've never heard of Charles Curtis. Before 1993, Nova Cottrell had barely heard of him - and she lives in his house.

BLOCK: When we purchased the house, we did not know a lot about Charles Curtis. We knew that he was the vice president of the United States.

D: Fifteen years later, she's convinced that the story of Charles Curtis is not just an interesting biography of a forgotten public servant.

BLOCK: It's the great American story.

D: It's a good one, anyway. It goes like this. Charles Curtis is born in 1860 to a white father and a mother who's half-French and half-Native American. When Curtis is 3, his father heads off to the Civil War and his mother dies. Young Charles is sent to live with his grandmother in Council Grove, Kansas, on a Kaw reservation.

P: They were in pretty bad shape.

D: Says historian William Unrau.

P: They have been decimated by smallpox, there's a lot of alcoholism in the tribe, their reservation there - it was being overrun by white settlers.

D: He moves back to Topeka, where as a teenager, as Nova Cottrell tells it, he starts a horse-drawn taxi service.

BLOCK: The lawyers took a liking to him and would always call on him to take them to their places of business, and he would get bored waiting on them and started reading the law books. And by the age of 21, passed a bar exam without a formal education.

D: Now, that is just the kind of up-by-the-bootstraps, only-in-America story that gets a man elected to Congress. William Unrau says Curtis was a curiosity when he arrived on Capitol Hill in 1892.

P: In fact, he used his Indian-ness when it was convenient for him in terms of what he was trying to achieve politically.

D: Many of his colleagues embraced Curtis - or Indian Charlie, as they called him - in their now totally creepy conception of race. Curtis had the best of two civilizations flowing through his veins. He was canny and resourceful thanks to his white ancestry, and in touch with the eternal rhythms of nature or whatever, thanks to the Indians.

Political historian Allan Lichtman says in 1928, a maverick Republican named Herbert Hoover needed a benign insider for a running mate. Curtis, then-Senate majority leader, did the trick.

P: He frightened no one.

D: This was a time in which laws and lynch mobs kept white and black Americans from intermarrying. Yet Lichtman says Curtis and Hoover's opponent's Catholicism was a huge issue. But Curtis' mixed race background seems to have played no real role in the election.

P: It would be about as likely for Charles Curtis to call for a national conversation on race as it would be to see a bus on the peak of Mount. Everest.

P: He firmly believed that the future of the American Indian was the Indian who was assimilated, who dropped his Indian language, who abandoned his Indian customs. And I think he viewed the mixed bloods like himself as a sort of instrument of achieving that sort of thing.

D: William Unrau says as the only Native American in Congress at the time, Curtis became the nation's most powerful voice in Indian policy. He wrote a law that gave away Indian mining rights and dissolved whole tribes - including his own. The irony, of course, is that the Native American who rose higher than any other nearly destroyed Native America. He said the law was his greatest achievement.

As vice president, he didn't get much of a chance for great or any achievement. Hoover only let him do things like open the 1932 Olympics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

V: In the name of the president of the United States, I proclaim open the Olympic Games of Los Angeles...

D: Hoover and Curtis, of course, lost in 1932. His historical first was swept under by the torrent of history that came during the Roosevelt administration. And two years later, FDR signed a new policy that sought to reconstitute tribes and save Native cultures from extinction.

Curtis' policy, the one inspired by his own life, was seen as a tragic mistake.

Nate DiMeo, NPR News.

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