Black History and the American President

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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.

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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 his conflicted public views on slavery and his private actions in fathering children with his enslaved mistress. ~he 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 a dandy."

The Jefferson-Hemings story has always fascinated people for a variety of reasons, Freedman said.

"One of things that was obvious was the hypocrisy," he 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. …