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Our First Black President: Abraham Lincoln?

A photograph of President Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving an official holiday on October 3rd, 1863, so he is the greatest President of all time. (And he did some other stuff like outlawing slavery and presiding over the U.S. government through a civil war.) He was also our first Black President. Maybe.

"Melungeon" has become a ubiquitous term for any person of mixed race ancestry, from the New York Montauks to the Redbones of western Louisiana, but the word was originally applied in the 1800s to people who lived in the Appalachian mountains along the Tennessee-Virginia border. The first Melungeon children were born in Virginia from the unions of Black and white indentured servants in the early 17th century, before American slavery took hold. As slavery became law and other legislation increasingly restricted Black freedom and interracial marriage, these families were forced to move further west into the mountains in order to stay together. It was here many families had children with Indigenous people, and Melungeons became tri-racial: Black, white, and Native American. They claimed to be Portuguese in order to be classified as white and remain free. The tales of Portuguese ancestry were told through the generations, so their children did not learn their true African and Indigenous heritage until centuries later. In fact, DNA studies began providing this new information just 10 years ago.

As I've learned in writing these posts, being white offers many special privileges and protections under American law. Examples relevant to this discussion of mixed-race people:

Martha Simmerman was a Melungeon woman whose inheritance was challenged in an 1874 court case. Her lawyer, Lewis Shepard, cleverly argued that Simmerman's family descended from ancient Phoenicians who eventually migrated to Portugal and then North America. Shepard later wrote in his memoir: "Our Southern high-bred people will never tolerate on equal terms any person who is even remotely tainted with negro blood, but they do not make the same objection to other brown or dark-skinned people, like the Spanish, the Cubans, the Italians, etc.”

In 1924, Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act- the "one drop" rule that stripped anyone of mixed race of their white legal privileges.

Throughout the 1800 and early 1900s, despite being a slur used by white people against those suspected to be of mixed-race, the term "Melungeon" was used on official government paperwork to identify people suspected to be of mixed-race.

So, bringing it back to our man Abe. Thanks to his mother, Nancy Hanks, Lincoln is suspected to have descended from a line of Melungeon people. Lincoln publicly said very little about his mother. When a newspaper editor asked about it during the 1860 presidential campaign, Lincoln tersely said, “It can all be condensed into a single sentence … ‘the short and simple annals of the poor.’” Lincoln privately confided in his law partner and future biographer William Herndon that his mother was the illegitimate child of a poor woman and a wealthy Virginia planter, but this theory has been contested by later genealogical research. His reason for hiding this information was if Lincoln's mother had been illegitimate, the news was so scandalous at the time it would have ended his presidency. To consider that he might also have been Black would have been bridge too far, so he, like many other people of various races and classes, concealed his true heritage in order to move freely throughout the U.S. and have all the privileges of whiteness.

Lincoln's biological mother
Nancy Hanks Lincoln

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