A black history of the American presidency

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Isn’t it cool the way that President’s Day happens during black history month, giving us so many opportunities to continue our ongoing frank conversation about race in American history?

After all, black history month’s founder, Carter G. Woodson, originally chose a week in February to celebrate both the birthday of President Abraham Lincoln and the chosen birth date of black political luminary Frederick Douglass. And ever since then we’ve all had the chance to learn so much, right? I’m thrilled about all the ways we are now engaged in complicating our collective memory by recalling the histories that we had once silenced.

The intersection of these holidays has made us all more aware of the ways that the history of enslavement has shaped the presidency.  We know that although the majority of enslaved black people had no opportunities to have a political voice, their very presence made the plantation states of the American South politically powerful, launching a large number of southerners into the White House. The three-fifths clause of the Constitution gave extraordinary political power to the states with the most enslaved people, ensuring that the interests of slave holding states were more than represented in the House of Representatives. In fact we all recognize that without counting this portion of the enslaved population, Virginia planter Thomas Jefferson could not have won his election to the presidency in 1800.

And we are aware that beyond the political advantage, both Washington and Jefferson were slave owners who benefited from holding vast wealth in land and enslaved people of African decent through inheritance and marriage. We know that Washington owned well over three hundred people and Jefferson owned around two hundred slaves for most of his adult life, including his mixed-race brothers-and-sisters-in-law. Recent work examining Jefferson and his slaves reminds us that enslaved black people touched every aspect of his daily life; constructing Monticello and the University of Virginia, harvesting his crops, cooking his meals, serving in his homes. It’s nearly impossible to think of Jefferson and ignore the black people around him right?

Aren’t we all excited by the ways we are grappling with the complex legacy of Founding Fathers who often publicly professed opposition to slavery and yet benefited personally from owning slaves? And while Washington made arrangements to free the people that he held in bondage after his wife’s death in his will, Jefferson freed just five of the people he owned, two of which were in all likelihood his children with his enslaved sister-in-law, Sally Hemmings. I am excited that our conversation about black history and the presidency has us thinking about the complexities of Jefferson as both Founding Father and master. Thinking through what it means that one of our greatest architects of the language of liberty held hundreds of people in inter-generational bondage.

And despite the whitewashing in the recent Academy-Award-winning film Lincoln, we do know that the dissent of both white and black abolitionists pushed Lincoln to finally move toward abolition of slavery. We know it was the chiding from Frederick Douglass that moved Lincoln from the protestation of slavery as an unfair economic system to willingness to let black men serve as Union soldiers.

Surely we have stopped claiming that presidents from any one party were squarely on the side of black civil rights, because we remember the ways that presidents from both parties waffled when it came to race in the age of segregation and civil rights. We recall that Republican Theodore Roosevelt, who initially reached out to black voters and black constituencies by inviting Booker T. Washington to dine in the White House, later ignored the horrors of the 1906 Atlanta race riot and then later that year summarily dismissed one hundred and sixty-seven black infantrymen stationed in Brownsville, Texas based on non-existent evidence and racially biased testimony.

We now put Roosevelt alongside the Democrat President Woodrow Wilson, as the first president in the twentieth century to endorse the racial segregation of federal employment in the nation’s capital. We also recall that it was Wilson who, in spite of protests from the National Association of Colored People (NAACP), showed the white-supremacist apologia Birth of a Nation in the White House and praised it allegedly saying, “it was like writing history in lightening.”

We remember that both “civil rights presidents” Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy initially sat on their hands and were only moved to address the demands of black civil rights activists when action became unavoidable. We remember that it was the movement itself, and not the presidents, who were at the forefront of the progress toward justice.

I’m so glad that Carter G. Woodson chose February, giving us the chance to honestly celebrate the way in which these histories are merged, and carry on a robust conversation about what difference the presidency has made to African-American history and to us all.  When we all remember this messy history of race and power, we are better for it, more prepared to meet the challenges of our day with honesty. Right?

Blair L. M. Kelley is an associate professor at North Carolina State University. Follow her on Twitter at @ProfBLMKelley