The First Black President: John Hanson?

BY Jane McGrath / POSTED April 20, 2009
Hammerbrook - City can this really be true?
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Recently, podcast listeners Ashley and Jason asked us to address some myths about the first black president of the United States.  Both had heard different rumors claiming that Barack Obama isn’t the first to hold the distinction.

Ashley heard that one black man was sworn in and briefly held the position during drunken celebrations after Reconstruction. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to come up with anything about that particular myth, so please comment below if you’ve heard of it or know where it came from.

Jason had heard a different myth that I was able to get to the bottom of, however. He’d heard that the first president of the United States was not George Washington, but actually a black man named John Hanson.

Dick Gregory, a black comedian and activist, seems to have started (or at least perpetuated) this myth. His article claims that Hanson was both black and the first president. But, there are a couple problems with these claims. As Gregory explains, Hanson was the first president under the Articles of Confederation in 1781 and got a lot of things done in his one-year term. However, six presidents later, the Articles of Confederation failed, and gave way to the Constitution in 1789, after which George Washington was elected.

Is racism (and not the Constitution) the reason why we start counting presidents with Washington? That might seem like a plausible explanation… if Hanson were in fact black. Web sites that repeat his myth often illustrate their claim with a deguerrotype of a black John Hanson. Turns out they’ve got the wrong John Hanson.

The Library of Congress attributes this same image to another John Hanson – a 19th-century senator who promoted relocating blacks to Liberia. This makes more sense, given that deguerrotypes weren’t invented until the 1800s, and that a portrait of the first Hanson depicts a caucasian. For more on the myth, and for a picture of the white Hanson, take a look at Audrey Peterson’s blog post from American Legacy Magazine.

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