Massachusetts

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.

The first black First Lady? Jacqueline Kennedy. Photo courtesy John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.

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. Historians believe 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. He then found success as a prominent landholder and merchant.

Anthony consequently defended  minorities. Contemporaries described him as ‘tawny,’ ‘half-Moroccan,’ ‘a former black slave’ and ‘mulatto.’

One of the van Salee descendants, John Van Salee De Grasse, received a formal education as a doctor. He then joined 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, first enacted as 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 that people called him ‘Black Jack.’ Jackie’s classmates at Miss Porter’s School asked her if he was really white.

1st Black First Lady?

Jackie Kennedy took on the First Lady role when African-Americans agitated for equality under the law.

President Kennedy supported (though somewhat tepidly) anti-discrimination laws. And so the New York Genealogical and Historical Society approached Jackie Kennedy hoping to discuss her African ancestry. Perhaps, they thought, it could help get a Civil Rights bill passed.

But Jackie Kennedy described her van Salee ancestors as ‘Jewish.’

She wouldn’t be the first person with  African blood to inhabit the White House. The van Salee descendants also included President 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, the United States probably had more than one black First Lady.

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 the first black 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.

You might also enjoy this story about Jack and Jackie Kennedy’s wedding here. This story about the first black first lady was updated in 2018.

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