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Was Jackie Kennedy the 1st Black First Lady?

When First Lady Jackie Kennedy visited England in 1961, society photographer Cecil Beaton met her at a dinner party. In his journal he commented she had a ‘Negroid’ appearance.

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Photo courtesy John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Photo courtesy John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.

Beaton detected what some claimed is Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis’s African heritage. That would make her the first black First Lady well before Michelle Obama moved into the White House.

Jackie was related to the van Salee family, according to the New York Genealogical and Historical Society.  Anthony and Abraham van Salee were among the first settlers of New Amsterdam, renamed New York in 1664. Their father was Jan Janszoon, a Dutch pirate who converted to Islam and went native in North Africa. It is believed he fathered Anthony and Abraham with a mistress of mixed race.

Anthony van Salee came to New Amsterdam at 22 – perhaps the first Muslim in the New World – and became a prominent landholder and merchant.

Anthony was a staunch defender of minorities. He was described as ‘tawny,’ ‘half-Moroccan,’ ‘a former black slave’ and ‘mulatto.’

One of the van Salee descendants, John Van Salee De Grasse, was the first African-American to be formally educated as a doctor. He was admitted to the Medical Society of Massachusetts and served as surgeon for the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment during the Civil War.

How, exactly, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis was related to Anthony or Abraham van Salee is unclear, at least to the New England Historical Society. (Perhaps a genealogist can help us out.)

Under the ‘one drop’ racial code, all she needed was one distant ancestor from sub-Saharan ancestor to be considered black.

Her father, John Vernou Bouvier, had such a swarthy complexion he was called ‘Black Jack.’ Jackie’s classmates at Miss Porter’s School asked her if he was really white.

1st Black First Lady

When she became First Lady, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing. President Kennedy supported (though somewhat tepidly) anti-discrimination laws. The New York Genealogical and Historical Society approached her with the hope of discussing her African ancestry. Perhaps, they thought, it could help get a Civil Rights bill passed. Jackie Kennedy replied her van Salee ancestors were 'Jewish.'

She wouldn’t be the first African-American to inhabit the White House as a member of the First Couple. The van Salees were also the ancestors of Warren G. Harding, as well as the Vanderbilts, the Whitneys and Humphrey Bogart.

Beaton, by the way, did not limit his catty remarks to Jackie Kennedy. He described Audrey Hepburn as looking ‘Mongolian’ with a huge mouth.

Here’s his complete description of First Lady Jackie Kennedy:  "Huge, baseball-player's shoulders and haunches, big boyish hands and feet; very dark, beautiful receptive eyes looking roguish or sad -- sometimes they pop too much -- mouth very large and generous, with a smile turning down at the corners in an inverted laugh; a somewhat negroid appearance; the suspicion of a moustache, and very black hair."

6 comments

  1. So, you are use the disreputable “one drop” rule to suggest someone is from a particular background, and you don’t actually know if Jackie Kennedy was related to this person who MAY have had black ancestry. Or may have had Arabic ancestry.

    In other words, this is completely unsubstantiated speculation.

    And Cecil Beaton was well known to be a bit of a gossipy b**ch, so the fact that he made a comment about someone’s appearance means little.

    I call click bait!

  2. The article references the “‘one drop’ racial code”, but seems at pains to adhere to it. Jackie Kennedy may well have had at least one “black” ancestor. Many of us do. But to call her–repeatedly in the article–a black woman is to submit to a standard that was always a racially-motivated tactic to suppress black people throughout the post-Civil War south. The article needs a thorough rewrite.

  3. There’ are so many whites out their passing………also among them…J Edgar Hiover….Loni Anderson,Jayne Mansfield…clear gable…..Joseph Cotten….the lkst goes on and on……oh and President Lincoln

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