There is an interesting article on HNN that asks the question, "Would Obama be the Nation's First Black President?" Now looking at a series of presidential portraits, you might think "of course," but this article highlights a race discussion about a prior president: Warren Harding. The author writes that there are two questions to consider:
In short, there are two elements to the issue of whether or not Harding (or one of the other four or five possible candidates) was the first black president. The two are linked but one is significantly more important than the other. The first is whether or not Harding had a black ancestor. The second, and the more important, boils down to whether or not there is a racial qualification to be president. Although it seems obvious that all of our presidents have been white, some Americans believe that a few presidents had black ancestors, thereby making them black under the outdated and racist “one-drop rule.”
In the election of 1920, "William Estabrook Chancellor, a professor at the College of Wooster, attempted to destroy Harding’s candidacy by charging that he was a “hybrid,” an “octoroon” descended from “Negro” ancestors. "
Did Harding have African-American ancestors? The evidence was sketchy and confusing at best:
What did Chancellor offer as evidence of Harding’s ancestry? Chancellor found people in central and northern Ohio who were willing to testify that members of the Harding family were black. They offered a variety of stories with little consistency and no hard evidence; indeed, Chancellor and many of those he interviewed dealt in the worst stereotypes of black promiscuity or vague descriptions of physical appearance. Perhaps the only thing more confusing and inconclusive than Chancellor’s evidence was the genealogy that the Republicans created to counter Chancellor’s charges in an attempt to document Harding’s “blue-eyed stock.” Rather famously, Harding refused to comment on the “scandal,” privately noting that for all he knew one of his ancestors might have “jumped the fence.”
This was not a good era for race relations and scientific racists, like Chancellor, were prevalent. But Harding, who certainly had his problems as President, did speak out against the Klan, which was on the rise in this period:
As president, Harding spoke out against the Klan and gave a speech in Birmingham that was surprisingly thoughtful for a man who was not supposed to be thoughtful. By modern standards, the speech was not particularly progressive, but he did call for qualified blacks to vote. Of course, they probably would have voted Republican but nonetheless it took courage in 1920 to stand in Alabama and say that. He set America’s racial difficulties in a national and global context, noting that racial and ethnic tensions plagued the world in the wake of the Great War. Some academic historians have argued that Harding’s address was the most significant speech on race given by any president since Grant. Indeed, a critical charge against Harding, according to Chancellor, was that Harding was sympathetic to the plight of black Americans. Despite the promise of his speech, African Americans were disappointed with Harding’s record; in his short administration (two years and five months) Harding did little that benefited African Americans.
In any case, the author states that the question of Harding's race really would only matter if we were to use the "one drop" theory:
Was Harding the first black president? Only by the dubious standards of the one-drop rule used by Chancellor might Harding have been considered black and even this is not certain. Chancellor’s research was biased, to say the least. Harding did not identify himself as black. His comment about not knowing if an ancestor had “jumped the fence” can hardly be considered a confession of mixed racial ancestry, although it is sometimes seen that way. The racist attacks of men like Chancellor and of some residents of Harding’s hometown might have made him sensitive about race, but they hardly make him black. Indeed, the vagaries of these charges can be seen in Harding’s relationship with his father-in-law. Amos Kling opposed his daughter’s engagement to Warren Harding and, in a pattern that others would follow, tried to destroy him by spreading stories that Harding was a “nigger.” When Harding later became successful, Kling came to accept him. Chancellor and others argued that Harding looked black, that he was “dark complected,” but more frequently, observers noted that Harding looked senatorial, presidential, or Romanesque. These comparisons make it clear that the discussion of Harding’s race took place within an arena marked by stereotypes and shifting standards.
But even if Harding had a black ancestor, America of the 1920s certainly did not consider themselves to be electing a black man and so really I (nor the author of this article) can see any way to justify the claim that Harding was our first African-American president. If Obama is elected, he will be the first knowingly elected black man and that would be a major event in presidential history.
By the way, what happened to the racist, Chancellor?
In 1920 Chancellor’s claims were seen as dangerous, even explosive, and he was fired from his job and had to flee the country as his book was suppressed by federal agents because of its content.