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President Warren G. Harding: The Perils of a Racialized Politics

Men of both races may well stand uncompromisingly against every suggestion of social equality. Indeed, it would be helpful to have that word “equality” eliminated from this consideration. . .--President Warren G. Harding, 1921, Birmingham, Alabama

Prior to his election as president, Warren Harding told the NAACP’s James Weldon Johnson in private that while he sympathized with the African American goals of federal protection against disfranchisement and segregation, he was not prepared to state this publicly. Yet, the nation’s ten million African Americans greeted the Harding administration in 1921 with relatively high hopes following the eight years of retrenchment under Woodrow Wilson.

Warren Gamaliel Harding was born November 1865 in the small village of Blooming Grove, Ohio. By 1882 Harding had graduated from small Ohio Central College in nearby Iberia. Later, with two friends, he purchased the Marion Star for $300. Described often as exceptionally handsome and affable, Harding rose quickly in business as well as in politics and society. He was, however, prone to emotional breakdown. On five occasions between 1890 and 1902 Harding was institutionalized in a Battle Creek, Mich. sanitarium operated by Dr. J. P. Kellogg.

Warren G. Harding was still a young man when he became a loyal Republican proud of the party’s heritage of saving the union and its dedication to serving business interests. Once he scorned black voters for their seeming lack of gratitude to the Party of Lincoln in New Albany, Ohio. Harding snarled, “Now the colored voters have the privilege . . . of voting just for whom and what they please, but just how they can display so much ingratitude as to vote against the true representatives of the party that proved itself their liberator is difficult to understand; and the colored voter who will vote against the party that proved its savior, if he isn’t, ought to be damned.” Following Harding’s victory in an election for the state senate in 1899 his political career skyrocketed. By 1903, Harding was elected Ohio’s lieutenant governor. He was an unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor in 1910, but was victorious in his race for the U.S. Senate four years later. Having established himself as a senator, Harding announced his candidacy for president of the United States in December 1919. Ex-president Theodore Roosevelt had been widely expected to secure the Republican nomination but his sudden death in January 1919 left a relatively open field for other candidates. Harding’s objective in announcing his candidacy was limited to merely to improving his chances for reelection to the Senate. To his own shock, he won the Republican nomination.

Harding's October Surprise

Senator’s Harding’s presidential campaign proceeded smoothly until an “October Surprise” almost derailed it. Suddenly, pamphlets appeared accusing Harding of having black blood, a damning accusation during an era when white supremacist attitudes ran roughshod over both common sense and science. William E. Chancellor, a fervently anti-black Wooster College professor, had researched Harding's background in Marion, Ohio. Harding, even during childhood was derided for having what his antagonists said was an African heritage. At the time of his marriage, his future father-in-law, Amos Kling, opposed the union pointing to Harding's black blood. Harding, in response, barely avoided a physical altercation with him over the charge.

Nan Britton, who bore Harding’s daughter Elizabeth Ann Christian out of wedlock, condemned the story she termed as “the propaganda of a statement that Mr. Harding's family had a strain of colored blood in their veins” immediately as false. She, who sent all of her secret letters to Harding in the care of his black valet, admitted that in asserting that it was “a damned lie” she “was defending my own baby.” She ultimately took comfort in “the great piles of genealogical sheets, tracing, in diagram form, the Harding stock back to Stephen Harding, who was born about 1624” that “refuted” the damnable charges.

It was clear that Harding’s foreparents migrated from Pennsylvania to Ohio where they moved into a black community. While they later moved to a white community the impression that they were of partial African ancestry followed them. When young Warren would get into fights, he would invariably be called “nigger” and “coon.” Throughout his life, his responses to statements suggesting that he had black foreparents elicited emotional, and often violent, responses from him. As children Harding and his brothers and sisters were routinely taunted with reference to their supposed black roots whenever disputes arose. Many fights resulted as Harding grew livid and violent at the suggestion. In Harry Daugherty’s account one incident during at the county school in “a row between the children of the Applemans and the blue eyed Hardings, vicious epithets were hurled” that quickly included, “scum,” “trash,” and “nigger.” Daugherty, Harding’s right-hand man while in the White House, writes that the incident ignited a feud with the “dark-eyed Applemans” and the “blue-eyed Hardings” that lasted for years. Daugherty wrote:

No family in the State had a clearer or more honorable record than the Hardings, a blue eyed stock from New England and Pennsylvania of the finest pioneer blood, Anglo Saxon, German, Scotch Irish and Dutch.

In a general sense, the Harding family was effectively intimidated from enjoying a full participation in the social and cultural life of their Ohio community. They existed on the margins of the local white society and for Warren himself it created a lifelong sense of doubt and social unease. Some suggest that this was responsible for Harding’s dogged conformism and conservatism. Once after a rival editor of the Independent newspaper had raised the potential issue of Harding black ancestry a potentially violent confrontation developed. The editor wrote “we have no desire to draw a COLOR line on the kink-haired youth that sees fit to use his smut machine only as a receptacle for a low order of adjective–as nature did it for him.” This infuriated Harding and he and his father Tryon, toting his shotgun, paid the offending editor a visit in his office forcing him to issue a retraction.

After Harding won the nomination for president for the GOP, his home town of Marion, Ohio, population 29,000, staged a major celebration, including parades and other events. The brewing scandal involving Harding’s illicit affair with young Carrie Phillips immediately surfaced presenting a major problem to Harding’s campaign. The candidate was distressed by the attention this received from the media, especially after his wife chased Phillips from the front porch by throwing objects of increasing weight at her. His front porch campaign, however, was jolted after the “shadow of Blooming Grove” reemerged. One pamphlet, The Right of the American People to Know provided a family tree of the Hardings terming Amos Hardings, his great-great grandfather as a “West Indian Negro” and his great-great grandmother, Huldah Harding “colored.” One witness who was said to have attended school with Harding’s father, George Tryon Harding and knew his family asserted that they were not only black in appearance they were regarded and treated by the community as such. The pamphlet also cited the objection registered by his wife’s father Amos H. Kling as convincing evidence of Harding’s blackness.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence of Harding’s partial black ancestry was the absence of denial on his part. Given the racial views of most American whites during this period, particularly his own, there would be an almost irresistible pressure for him to maintain the impression that he was “pure” white. However, he frankly admitted to a reporter who was also a personal friend, “How do I know, Jim? One of my ancestors may have jumped the fence.”

While Senator Harding himself did not directly deny the charges his campaign shifted into overdrive to counter the “smears.” Issuing a Harding family tree compiled by the Historical Society of Wyoming, Pennsylvania, accompanied by a statement that his heritage consisted of “a blue-eyed stock from New England and Pennsylvania” of “the finest pioneer blood, Anglo-Saxon, German, Scotch-Irish, and Dutch,” the Harding team’s “damage control“ ultimately saved the campaign.

Meanwhile, Harding, convinced of black inferiority, narrowly avoided another emotional collapse. His wife too was reportedly “red-eyed from weeping” as a result of the vile charge. The presidential candidate reportedly had to be restrained from roughing up Chancellor. Finally, however, the storm blew over, Harding’s silence paid off. He won the election handily registering a landslide victory.

President Warren Harding

Warren Harding, 29th President

March 4, 1921 to August 2, 1923

Birth: November 2, 1865, Blooming Grove, Ohio

Death: August 2, 1923

Education: Ohio Central College

Religion: Baptist

Profession: Journalist, Politician

Political Party: Republican

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: Politician

Important Online Works

Life Portrait of Warren G. Harding, Sep 20, 1999CSPAN

The Harding Administration and African American Progress

Elected with overwhelming black support, and the first Republican in the White House in eight years, Warren G. Harding’s November 1920 victory promised to speed the enactment of federal anti-lynching legislation, improve race relations, end the U. S. occupation of Haiti, and significantly increase African American mid-level positions within the federal bureaucracy. The new president’s inaugural address buoyed African American hopes after Harding declared that Congress “ought to wipe the stain of barbaric lynching from the banners of a free and orderly, representative democracy.” In addition, he advocated the creation of a biracial commission on race relations aimed at promoting “mutual tolerance, understanding, charity, [and] recognition of the interdependence of the races.”

Soon following this, President Harding met with a group of black leaders who reiterated national black grievances to him. In April 1921, he repeated his message on lynching to Congress, calling for the society to “wipe the stain” of the crime from the nation. Despite these moves, the appointment of Walter L. Cohen as the Collector of Customs for the port of New Orleans was one of the few positive early moves President Harding made in the direction of black interests. This grudging acknowledgment of black political interests early into the Harding administration was appreciated impacting even one W. E. B. DuBois.

Any African American enthusiasm for the new administration of President Harding was short-lived. It was soon apparent that far fewer blacks than expected would be appointed; that there would be no serious effort on the part of the White House to enact anti-lynching legislation; that President Harding was gearing his politics to woo Southern anti-black constituencies; and that no executive order desegregating the federal bureaucracy would be forthcoming. Indeed, it was doubtful that President Harding ever truly supported the desegregation of the federal government since by the fall of October 1921 in a Birmingham, Alabama speech he warned African Americans against seeking equality. Ida B. Wells was part of a 1922 delegation of fifteen women from the NACW (National Association of Colored Women) that met with Harding to press him to support the Dyer anti-lynching bill. Despite the pressures upon him, President Harding ignored the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) request for African Americans to be appointed as assistant secretaries in the Labor and Agriculture departments.

President Harding's “Southern Strategy”

President Harding felt that the black presence in the Republican organization was damaging the “Party of Lincoln.” In his Birmingham, Alabama speech Harding said “both races” should be “uncompromisingly against every suggestion of social equality:”

. . . Indeed, it would be helpful to have that word “equality” eliminated from this consideration; to have it accepted on both sides that this is not a question of social equality, but a question of recognizing a fundamental, eternal and inescapable difference.

Harding further stressed that recognition of these “eternal and inescapable” differences was key to future progress. Blacks were unfit to vote and therefore should be barred from voting, according to Harding. Appealing to the “self-respect of the Colored race” to not want to intrude upon whites” Harding expressed his belief that a set of black leaders adhering to these ideals involving “proper ideals of race pride” should be cultivated by leading whites. With an eye on his “Southern Strategy,” Harding emphasized that “racial amalgamation there cannot be,” arguing against a non-existent African American demand. Harding argued for a racial “partnership,” one featuring distinctly unequal partners. Without any subtly, Harding stated his doubt that education could ever create any real intellectual equality between black and white. While he stated his commitment to “equal educational opportunity” for both races, he stressed that this did “not mean that both would become equally educated within a generation, or two generations, or ten generations.”

Assuring whites of the south that his view of racial progress for African Americans did not involve the prospect of “social equality” for the foreseeable future, Harding viewed black education as a way of creating leaders inculcated with the proper, subservient outlook on life. He deplored the development of “group” organizations among blacks, contending that blacks should remain powerless and place their faith in the benevolence of southern whites. Harding said:

I may be dreaming, but it seems to me that the colored man of the South has his only opportunity by falling in the ranks behind the leadership of white men, until such a time as he may be able to control the Legislature. I may be wrong in this, but I am determined, live or die, sink or swim, to adhere to this policy.

Harding “would accept that a black cannot be a white man and that he does not need and should not aspire to be as much like a white man as possible” to optimally progress. Accused of being a member of the Ku Klux Klan, President Harding directed his secretary to respond that “[N]ot only is this untrue, but the fact is that the President heartily disapproves of the organization and has repeatedly expressed himself to this effect.” Despite this, the president never directed the Department of Justice to launch an investigation of the Ku Klux Klan.

Under Harding’s leadership the Republican Party sought to build a southern white constituency. Key to this quest was the ousting of the African Americans who remained entrenched in south's Republican Party organization. Only this would encourage southern whites to abandon the Democratic Party. President Harding sought to use patronage to help accomplish this goal and bring a portion of the white southern elite into the Republican Party. The president also pledged to the South not to “add to the irritation there by the appointment of Negroes to federal offices.” Black attendees at the 1924 Republican national convention in Cleveland were greeted by seating segregated by chicken wire. When these strategies failed to achieve their goals of bringing massive numbers of southern whites into the Republican Party President Harding lamented, “I thought we had brought into it a number of people who would give us some hope of Republican success and at the same time help us to bring high-grade men into the public service.”

President Harding became enfeebled, ill, and confused in early 1923 leading him to acknowledgewhat his harshest critics had always maintained, that he was “not fit for this office and should have never been here.” President Harding had grown weary of his leadership role describing the job of president as “Hell! No other word can describe it” to a U. S. Senator. President Harding did not live out his term in office succumbing in August 1923 to a heart ailment.

©Christopher Brian Booker, 2014.