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.
Beaton detected what some claim 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 Africa to be considered black. The code, which first became law in Tennessee in 1910, decreed that a person with one drop of black blood was to be considered black.
Jackie's 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 Jackie Kennedy became First Lady, African-Americans were agitating for equality under the law.
President Kennedy supported (though somewhat tepidly) anti-discrimination laws. The New York Genealogical and Historical Society approached Jackie Kennedy with the hope of discussing her African ancestry. Perhaps, they thought, it could help get a Civil Rights bill passed.
Jackie Kennedy told them 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 under the one-drop rule. The van Salees were also the ancestors of Warren G. Harding, as well as the Vanderbilts, the Whitneys and Humphrey Bogart.
President Thomas Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings, a mixed-race woman who he enslaved.
And since nearly 4 percent of European-Americans have African ancestors, it's likely that under the one-drop rule there was a black First Lady before Jackie Kennedy moved into the White House.
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."
This story was updated in 2017.