It appears that much-maligned GOP president Warren G. Harding may have beaten Barack Obama to the honor of being the first black president by more than 80 years. Historian Beverly Gage makes a strong argument for the historical evidence that Harding was an ‘octaroon’ passing as white, with one African-American great-grandparent. In the 1920s even a hint of ‘colored’ blood would have doomed his political career, but the evidence of his mixed ancestry and the efforts to cover it up seems pretty convincing, supported not only by Gage’s research, but also by the family histories gathered by Harding descendent Marsha Stewart in her book Warren G. Harding: Death by Blackness.
Even more than other Republicans of the era, Harding certainly embraced policies which were good for the black population. He restored all of the racially progressive policies of the Teddy Roosevelt administration which had been reversed by racist Democrats under Wilson. He was the first president to advocate full legal and social equality for blacks, including voting rights and access to education and public facilities. He also promoted an important anti-lynching bill in Congress. W. E. B. DuBois placed Harding above other Republican racial reformers, saying that he “made a braver, clearer utterance than Theodore Roosevelt ever dared to make or than William Taft or William McKinley ever dreamed of. For this let us give him every ounce of credit he deserves.
Following in Harding’s tradition, Republicans would go on to pass the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960 and 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 over the objections of southern Democrats, adding to a long history of fighting for racial equality while Democrats worked to divide people by race and social class and set race against race and group against, exploiting constituents instead of advancing their interests.
What may be most significant about Obama’s increasingly probable rise to the presidency are that the groundwork for it was laid by successive Republican administrations, and the change in attitudes which it signifies. When Harding ran for office his family had to do everything it could to conceal his African-American ancestry, even if it was only an unfounded rumor as they claimed at the time. 80 years later, Obama faces criticism for not being ‘black enough’, even though he’s about twice as black as Harding was. If Obama does win the race, let’s not forget that his success was largely built on the work of generations of Republicans like Harding who took up the cause of Black Americans when it was controversial and no one else would stand up for them.