Every president of the United States from George Washington to Barack Obama has had to confront issues surrounding African-Americans and race relations in America. Each has left a trail of documents—statements, executive orders, speeches, letters and other items—that reveal far more than history textbooks do about what the chief executives did or felt about the matters at hand.
Most of us rarely get access to these direct sources, but Eric Freedman, an associate professor of journalism at Michigan State University, and his co-author, Stephen A. Jones, an assistant professor of history at Central Michigan University, have made it a little easier to learn about how each president has dealt with the Black race in America.
Their book, Presidents and Black America: A Documentary History, (CQ Press, October 2011), is a hefty volume primarily intended for students and advanced scholars to use in libraries but also would be of interest to more casual readers of history. It provides fascinating insights into our history through excerpts of documents from every presidential administration, along with introductions and notes to place them in context. By no means impenetrable or boring, it is a reference book that reads like a time capsule filled with the artifacts of the presidency.
“It puts human faces and human situations onto the official, “This is what President So-and-So did,” Freedman said in an interview with Diverse. “It reinforces to me that history is more than simply dates and places, formal events, and the language used. The context the documents provide, rounds out those mere facts. So, when you are reading a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in his own words or you are reading the stilted style of a presidential veto message, it enriches the historical sense you get.”
From Jefferson, the book presents excerpts of his Notes on the State of Virginia outlining his racial views, letters about his thoughts on the prospects for emancipation, a letter to James Monroe about a Black rebellion and a letter regarding the proposal to admit Missouri to the union as a state in which slavery would be permitted.
The chapter introduction deals with Jefferson’s conflicted public views on slavery and his private actions in fathering children with his enslaved mistress. The book quotes a mocking verse about “Monticellian Sally” from opponents: “What wife was half so handy? To breed a flock of slaves for stock / A blackamoor’s the dandy.”
The Jefferson-Hemings story always has fascinated people for a variety of reasons, Freedman said.
“One of things that was obvious was the hypocrisy,” Freedman explained. “Whether it was the stage where it was only rumors or when science advanced enough to prove it, it played on every White fear, whether it was interbreeding or the master-slave in an unequal relationship both legally and culturally.”
In recent years, DNA evidence of a genetic link between descendants of Hemings and those of Jefferson has generated even more interest.
“We love ‘CSI,’” Freedman said. “We love forensics. It’s all about the science now, and the DNA testing was able put to rest, among most people, doubts that these rumors were true.”
Among discoveries that came as a surprise, Freedman said, were accounts of the assassination of President William McKinley at an exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1901, praising a Black waiter, James “Big Ben” Parker, for punching and grabbing the shooter in an attempt to save the chief executive.
“The initial press reports mentioned the waiter,” Freedman said. “There were poems written about him. Then, you look at the Atlanta Constitution (article cited in the book), and it talked about the trial where he did not testify, and Whites got all the credit for subduing the assassin.”
One poet, Lena Doolin Mason, had written, “McKinley fell, from the assassin’s ball / And the Negro he got in it. / He knocked the murderer to the floor …,” but the Constitution’s report of the trial in Buffalo, N.Y., said the witnesses who testified “had no knowledge of the gallant colored man.”
Other documents of interest include:
• Gen. George Washington’s flattering and gracious letter in 1776 to the early-American Black poet Phillis Wheatley thanking her for “this new instance of your genius”—a poem she had written about him.
• An excerpt from a book published in 1922 by one of Warren G. Harding’s detractors about his supposed Black roots: “It is evident to all that the man is mostly White. What we insist on is that the race consciousness of the Hardings in Blooming Grove caused them to remain Negro. … Warren and his brother and sisters were reared and treated as colored people.” McKinley never affirmed or denied the rumors.
• An excerpt from A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison, 1865 in which a servant declared the former president “one of the best men that ever lived.” The writer continues: “I never saw him in a passion and I never knew him to strike a slave, although he had over 100; neither would he allow an overseer to do it.”
• A letter from Madison to his father in 1783 about a decision not to force his attendant, Billey, to return with him to Virginia from Philadelphia, where James Madison served in the Continental Congress. Concluding that Billey’s exposure to free Black life and antislavery sentiment in the city would not make him a good influence on the plantation, Madison wrote that he had arranged to sell the man into indentured service for seven years, after which he would be free.
• The preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, signed September 22, 1862, which demonstrates how Abraham Lincoln’s thinking changed before he issued the final document on Jan. 1, 1863. He eliminated provisions to compensate owners for the loss of slave property and to colonize the freed people of African descent “with their consent, on this continent or elsewhere.”
Freedman said choosing documents became far more difficult for presidents of modern times because so much more material was available.
From Obama’s era, the authors include debate excerpts, speeches, interview transcripts and other documents that touch on such issues as the fiery rhetoric of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the firing of Shirley Sherrod and the beer summit with Henry Louis Gates Jr. and his arresting officer.
These incidents involving the first president known to be Black “tell us that, regardless of the race of the president, race is still [a] political and cultural issue in the United States,” Freedman said. “It may not always be spoken,” he continued. “Whether race is expressed, or it’s subtle and understood, it’s still going to be part of our political debate.”
Editor’s Note: Both Eric Freedman and Angela Dodson are longtime contributors to Diverse.