Now that America has its first non-white president, let us take a moment and remember the first non-white vice president.
His name was Charles Curtis. He served as Herbert Hoover’s v.p. from 1929 to 1933.
Curtis was an enrolled member of the Kaw or Kanza tribe (for whom the state of Kansas is named). His father was white, but his mother was three-quarters American Indian, with Osage and Potawatomi ancestry as well as Kaw.
Charles Curtis spent part of his childhood with his grandparents on Indian territory. According to USA Today, Curtis learned the Kanza language before he learned to speak English.
But when the tribe was relocated from Kansas to Oklahoma, young Curtis was sent into the white world... to be cared for by his father’s people in Topeka.
Curtis would have a successful 34-year career in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, rising to the rank of Senate Majority Leader. He was more of a back-room dealmaker than a man of ideas.
Here’s part of a New York Times profile published on November 6, 1927, when Sen. Curtis declared himself a Republican candidate for the presidency at age 67:
“His grandmother, Julie Pappan, an Indian, was the inspiration of Curtis’s boyhood. Her wise advice turned him from the tepees of his forefathers and persuaded him to cast his lot with the white men of Topeka, to toil and toil hard, to study and win an education and ‘go far’ along the road that leads to honors.” (Curtis’s mother died when he was 5 years old.)
The Times story continued: “It was nearly sixty years ago – in 1868 – when what may be described as the turning point in Senator Curtis’s life came. He was 10 years old. Already at home in the saddle, he could follow a trail like an Indian brave, was tireless afoot or astride – about the smartest boy in the whole Kaw tribe.
“When the Kaws were encamped west of Topeka, the peace-loving Kaws were attacked by their ancient enemies, the Cheyennes....
“Senator Curtis remembers that day as if it were yesterday. The war cries of the Cheyennes, the rain of arrows that poured into the Kaw camp, the struggle to hold the Cheyennes in check. It was a losing battle, and in desperation the chiefs of the Kaws decided to call on the whites of Topeka for help.
“Somebody had to take the message through the Cheyenne lines, and there would then be a ride of sixty miles to the frontier town that is now the capital of Kansas.
“Charles Curtis, the 10-year-old, was the courier to whom was entrusted the delivery of the message on which the lives of the Kaws depended. ...
“The message was delivered; the Kaws were saved.”
Evidently, Curtis’s racial status wasn’t a political liability. But neither was it ignored. Upon his death in 1936, the New York Times wrote: “Mr. Curtis showed his Indian blood distinctly. He was swarthy, had black hair and high cheekbones and many other characteristics of the Indian.”
In his 1928 bid for the presidential nomination, Charles Curtis didn’t do well. But on the eve of the Republican National Convention, the Kansas senator positioned himself as a “compromise candidate” between the frontrunner, Commerce Secretary Hoover, and a movement to draft incumbent President Calvin Coolidge for a third term.
Herbert Hoover won the nomination easily, but the convention selected Curtis as his running mate... to increase Hoover’s appeal to farm-state voters.
During Hoover’s White House years, the president and his vice president weren’t close. According to a U.S. Senate biography of Curtis, “his advice was neither sought nor followed” by Hoover.
But Curtis embraced the status of his title, talking up his rise “from Kaw tepee to Capitol.” He displayed his racial pride by hanging paintings of famous Indian chiefs on the walls of his vice presidential office. He would even pose for photographs wearing an Indian headdress.
And in 1932, when Curtis’s name was placed in nomination for a second term as Hoover’s vice president, a fellow Kansan told the Republican convention this: “[O]n that long road from an Indian reservation to the Vice Presidency of the United States, Charles Curtis never had anything handed to him. What he got he earned.”