Harding Wasn’t 1st Black President, DNA Shows

2stepz_ahead Guests, Members, Writer, Content Producer Posts: 32,324 ✭✭✭✭✭
edited August 2015 in The Social Lounge

Bill Clinton was called the first black president because he crossed racial lines so easily, a distinction he lost when Barack Obama became the first actual black president. But for decades, some Americans claimed that the nation’s first black president was really Warren G. Harding.

It turns out that he wasn’t, really. At least that is the result of new DNA testing that according to scientists showed for the first time that Harding almost certainly had no recent ancestors with African blood, despite assertions that were spread far and wide a century ago in efforts to sabotage everything from his marriage to his political career.

The finding was overshadowed last week by the determination through the same testing that Harding did father a child with a mistress, Nan Britton. But the conclusion about Harding’s racial ancestry likewise addresses a mystery that had puzzled historians for many years and provides a seemingly definitive resolution of a subplot that played out during his lifetime.

For Mr. Clinton, of course, the sobriquet of first black president was meant as a compliment, and for Mr. Obama a historical accomplishment. But for Harding, raised in a vastly different era, when Jim Crow governed much of the country and the Ku Klux ? was making a comeback, it was a weapon wielded against him. Operating under the so-called one-drop rule that any “black blood” at all made someone black, racists used genealogy to try to discredit opponents.

With Harding, it stuck for decades. Abigail Harding, his grandniece, said last week that her family told her that when she was a baby in the 1940s, a woman came up to her carriage on the street and said, “Just wanted to see if she was black.”

From the 1960s to the 1990s, the story was cited by black authors in pamphlets and books like “The Five ? Presidents” and “The Six Black Presidents” to avenge being exposed for wrongdoing. More recently, the question was revived with Mr. Obama’s election in 2008.

The historian Francis Russell, in his 1968 biography of Harding, traced the story back to Harding’s great-great-grandfather, Amos, who supposedly told descendants that a man spread the rumor that he was black to avenge being caught damaging a neighbor’s apple trees. Another Harding biographer, Robert K. Murray, had a different explanation, writing that when the future president’s abolitionist family moved to Ohio, they lived in the same area with black residents and there was mingling.

It gained traction with some when Amos Kling, a local tycoon in Marion, Ohio, angry that his daughter, Florence, was marrying Harding, spread the rumor that he was black and tried to force businessmen in town not to do business with him.


  • 2stepz_ahead
    2stepz_ahead Guests, Members, Writer, Content Producer Posts: 32,324 ✭✭✭✭✭
    As John W. Dean and other biographers wrote, years later Mr. Kling came to a peace of sorts with Harding, who by then had made a name in politics. “My daughter,” Mr. Kling told an acquaintance, “married a” — and here he used a term not acceptable today — “but he’s a smart” one.

    By 1920, when Harding was running for president as the Republican nominee, William Estabrook Chancellor, a professor at the College of Wooster and a racist supporter of the Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, collected unsubstantiated statements from various Ohio residents asserting that Harding had black ancestors. The research was then published in pamphlets that were distributed to voters.

    Harding stayed away from the matter, although he told a reporter he did not know the truth. “One of my ancestors may have jumped the fence,” he said. His supporters responded aggressively lest the issue hurt his chances. His campaign adviser boasted that the Hardings were from “a blue-eyed stock” and federal agents seized the pamphlets. In the end, they did nothing to stop Harding from winning a landslide victory, and Professor Chancellor was fired from his college job.

    While in office, Harding was more outspoken on civil rights for blacks than perhaps any other president since Ulysses S. Grant. In his first address to Congress, he called for an anti-lynching law. He later traveled to the Deep South to call for equal political and economic rights for blacks in a speech in Birmingham, Ala. “Whether you like it or not,” he told white audience members, “unless our democracy is a lie, you must stand for that equality.”

    Still, in his two years as president before dying in office in 1923, Harding made little progress toward achieving those lofty goals or even reversing Wilson’s segregation of federal departments. The anti-lynching law passed the House but not the Senate.

    The story of Harding’s supposedly mixed ancestry has persisted into modern times. Just 10 years ago, Marsha Stewart, an African-American schoolteacher claiming to be a fifth cousin of Harding’s, published a book, “Warren G. Harding U.S. President 29: Death by Blackness.”

    But when Abigail Harding and her cousin, Peter Harding, decided to be tested through AncestryDNA, a service of Ancestry.com, the genealogical site, their results told a different story.

    While humankind is generally traced to sub-Saharan Africa, the AncestryDNA test measures for more recent regional origin going back hundreds or thousands of years. By testing Harding’s grandnephew and grandniece, as well as a grandson of Ms. Britton, the scientists said they could extrapolate Harding’s own ancestry.

    The tests found “no detectable genetic signatures of sub-Saharan African heritage in any of the three cousins,” said Julie Granka, a population geneticist at AncestryDNA. As a result, she said, “it is very unlikely,” meaning less than a 5 percent chance, that Harding had a black ancestor within four generations, meaning great-great-grandparents.

    “However,” she added, “the analysis does not rule out the possibility that Harding still could have a more distant ancestor from sub-Saharan Africa.”

    While such a finding would have once been politically expedient for his great-uncle, today Peter Harding confessed to a little disappointment. “I was hoping for black blood,” he said.
  • 2stepz_ahead
    2stepz_ahead Guests, Members, Writer, Content Producer Posts: 32,324 ✭✭✭✭✭
    edited August 2015
    so to discredit people back then .....they would just say you was black

    now they say their life is in danger
  • The Lonious Monk
    The Lonious Monk Members Posts: 26,258 ✭✭✭✭✭
    edited August 2015
    Kinda funny when you think about it. With Harding, he had blackness attached to him as a way to attack him. With Clinton, he had it attached to him just because he seemed to have style and was different than the typical whitebread cracka that had been elected as president. Funny how things change over time.
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  • Focal Point
    Focal Point Members Posts: 16,307 ✭✭✭✭✭
    Bet the other presidents with some of the more racist ones have black in their ancestry
  • kingblaze84
    kingblaze84 Members Posts: 14,288 ✭✭✭✭✭
    edited August 2015
    This kind of reminds me of a former friend of mine who used to swear Abraham Lincoln was Black, and some people still say this. I even heard a guy say once that Andrew Jackson was part Black, cuz his hair "looks nappy" lol