Has America Already Had a Black President? This fall, America could elect its first black president. But according to some, it's already happened. From Andrew Jackson to Warren Harding, we look at why these claims exist and consider what this issue tells us about America's racial attitudes, culture, and history.

Has America Already Had a Black President?

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Right now, the country, and the world is discussing whether America will elect its first black president, but some people believe the event has already happened. Over time, rumor mongers and amateur historians have claimed that Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, Warren Harding, Dwight Eisenhower, Calvin Coolidge, and Abraham Lincoln had black blood. No one has been able to prove any of this, but today we will look at why these claims exist and persist. What does this conversation tell us about America's racial attitudes, culture, and history? And what would it really take to examine the rumors to see if they are true? With us, today, Beverly Gage, an assistant professor of history at Yale University, and Edward Ball, he is the author of several books, including the award winning "Slaves in the Family," his latest book is "The Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History Through DNA". Welcome to you both.

Mr. EDWARD BALL (Writer): Hi.

Prof. BEVERLY GAGE (Assistant Professor of History, Yale University): Hi.

CHIDEYA: So, Beverly, let me start with you. You wrote in the New York Times Magazine about Warren Harding and the rumors that he had black ancestors, so if that were true, prevailing racial views would have defined him as black. So tell us a little bit more about what people were saying at the time and why?

Prof. GAGE: Absolutely. Warren Harding, really, even before he ran for president, from the moment that he entered political office, in local Ohio politics, was dogged by rumors that he had black ancestors, and the rumors varied, some of the rumors focused on the ideas his great-grand mother had been a fugitive slave, or had been black, other focused on his father, other focused on other members of the family. But the rumors themselves were fairly persistent, and they were fairly widely accepted, at least, especially among Harding's opponents. But even according to rumor among the communities that Harding lived in as a young man, and there is the suggestion, in fact, that Harding's full family was understood to be black, but passing in the small communities where they grew up.

And, so, when Harding became president, as he was campaigning for president, in 1920, these rumors reached a sort of fever pitch, and they were laid out, in particular, by a historian named William Estabrook Chancellor, who wrote what is now a fairly notorious and extremely hard to find book about these allegations, about Harding's mix race ancestry.

CHIDEYA: Now, so much of this has to do with whether people see blackness as a negative in general, or a political negative. Just in the 2000 presidential campaign, people started to whisper campaign claiming that Senator John McCain had an illegitimate black child. They were talking about his daughter, who is a Bangladeshi by birth, and he and his wife adopted her. And so that gives the sense of kind of how these issues even persist today. But let's go back to Warren Harding's era. If people at that time proved that he was part black, how would it had affected his political career and his social standing?

Prof. GAGE: Right. Well, certainly the one drop rule was in effect, and one of the reasons that these rumor were kept alive, and one of the reasons that this Professor Chancellor wrote his book, was that they hoped that even the merest suggestion of having quote-unquote "negro blood" in him, would invalidate the Harding presidency. There were actually, interestingly, suggestions that Republicans, and Harding was a Republican, Republicans were then the party of civil rights, the party of Lincoln still, and there were actually a few suggestions that it was actually the Republicans who were spreading these rumors, in order to take advantage of the black vote in the north, because you had a big movement of African-Americans from the south to northern cities, during the first World War, but by far, by far, the greater emphasis was on, on how much damage this could do to Harding's candidacy.

And, in fact, Harding himself hit that pretty hard against those who raised these rumors, and against Chancellor, in particular Chancellor ended up being thrown out of the country, forced up to Canada, and most of the copies of his book were destroyed, many of them burnt, and so they are very hard to find now, but that was the context. And the other thing I think it is important to remember at this moment, in the teens and the twenties, was that this was really the height of sort of post Civil War racial violence.

You had Jim Crow being instituted in the south, and being often enforced through violence. The Klan is on the raise, by 1915 and certainly into the 1920s. One of the interesting things about the Harding presidency, you know, if you want to think, was he, was he actually our first black president? Is that it was also the heyday of the second rise of the Ku Klux Klan, in the early 20s. So really pretty vicious racial politics shaping all of these issues.

CHIDEYA: Edward, let me turn to you, now, your research on racial mixing among your own ancestors helped shape a public debate on how race connects us, and slaves in the family show this secret connections between blacks and white in your own family. But on the issue of President Harding, there is a often repeated, but not verified story, that a friend asked him whether he was part black, and President Harding reportedly said, how do I know, Jim, one of my ancestors might have jumped the fence. So, when you think about this whole idea of jumping the fence or passing for white, how common was that?

Mr. BALL: It was probably less common than people would say today. I think that it might have involved 50,000 African-Americans over a period of 1900 to 1930, who crossed the line and lived white. That was an option, especially as Jim Crow became more ferocious, people would leave the south, as black people end up in New York, or Chicago, and begin to live white, and pass themselves as Italian-Americans or Greek-Americans. And that was something that black families back home, back in the south, respected by and large, and allowed their brothers and cousins to maintain.

CHIDEYA: Well, let's talk about another historical example. Thomas Jefferson had children with his slave, Sally Hemings, and many historians refuse to believe that these rumors were true, until DNA proved it true. Your new book is about race, family and genetics, so do you think that genetics, it is highly unlikely that someone is going to dig up Warren Harding, but if there were the chance to exhume some of these past presidents, do you think that genetic testing would be one way of trying to establish whose ancestry was what?

Mr. BALL: Yes, it would be possible to do that. And you can extract DNA from bone fragments, assuming they survived, and also from hair, which survives almost as long as bones. Bone is porous, which means it sucks in the sweat from people touching it, which contains DNA so you have to be careful about contamination. You would put the bones through an extraction process. And some labs specialized in so-called ancient DNA, and then you would look for markers on the DNA, associated with west African populations.

Different data exist, and different markers that signal genes that travel from their root continent, in this case Africa. And you make it just bits of the DNA molecule, and you'd look in those bits and hope that the markers that you want are on those bits. This is, this was done successfully, in the case of the family of the Russian Czar, Nicholas II, who was killed by the Bolsheviks in 1919, and whose family, the bones of which were exhumed in the 1990s and tested for DNA, in comparison with distant relatives in the UK, and geneticists were able to confirm that the remains were, then, what they were purported to be.

CHIDEYA: Beverly, let me turn back to you. Your article is not the first work to raise these questions. It's been written up in afro centric history books, including a 1965 book by J.A. Rogers called "The Five Negro Presidents." There's a similar book called "Six Black Presidents: Black Blood, White Masks." So why would these authors want to claim white presidents as their own.

Professor GAGE: Well this is a great question. I mean one of the really interesting things is just how long these rumors have persistent, and what's particularly interesting in Harding's case is, you know, why anyone would necessarily want to claim Warren Harding, in particular, who is usually on our - pretty low down on the list of presidential rankings. But I think more broadly it raises this question of kind of a pride or an inclusion question and I think it's sort of an open question, what is at stake by claiming someone like Harding as black? I think in the most basic way it is a suggestion that first of all we don't yet know the truth about race in America, either today necessarily, or certainly we haven't fully come to terms with all of the truth about our racial past. One of things that's most interesting is why we don't know this. Why it's been so difficult to ferret out the truth. And then as well, I think, to claim someone like Harding as black or even raise the possibility that he might have been just suggests that, you know, black people, are not, you know, the great exception in American history. American political history, but have been part of everything from the presidency on, and so I think that's part of the impulse anyway.

CHIDEYA: Ed, when you think about the impact that your work has had in term of contextualizing the connections between blacks and whites in America, what do you think of this whole debate and why people are interested in it? You know, in terms of the presidency and blackness and whiteness?

Mr. BALL: Well, as you know people are perennially fascinated by interracial sex which has its roots in forced sexual relationships on the plantations during the slave days. And this kind of electricity around this subject seems to persist right down to the present and the business about Harding is, I think, another manifestation of it. But what Beverly says about the community being the source of the rumors and possibly authenticating them based upon their source in the towns where Harding grew up is pretty right on. For example in South Carolina, black people in the state knew about Strom Thurmond's black daughter for 50 years. And when she finally steps forward, the only people that were surprised were those in the white community because most black South Carolinians knew all about it. There's another way to try to authenticate or check the rumor, which was used in the Sally Hemings case, and that would be to test the male descendants of Harding's grandfather who I think was one of the people who was said to look black, to test the white and black descendants if they are willing to do so.

CHIDEYA: You know we have to stop, but that would be an interesting thing if there any Warren Harding relatives out there who would like to come on the show and provide some DNA, we are here and waiting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Beverly and Ed, I have to let you go. Thank you so much. Beverly Gage assistant professor of History at Yale University and author Edward Ball "Slaves in the Family" and "The Genetic Strand."

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