DNA Shows Warren Harding Wasn’t America’s First Black President

Peter Baker, New York Times, August 18, 2015

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.

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{snip} 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 Negro Presidents” and “The Six Black Presidents” to argue that several presidents had mixed heritage. 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 exposed as a thief. Another Harding biographer, Robert K. Murray, had a different explanation, writing that when the future president’s abolitionist family moved to Ohio, it lived in the same area with black residents and there was mingling.

The story gained traction with some when Amos Kling, a 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.

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 that 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.

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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.

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