Who Was Charles Curtis, The First Vice-President Of Color?
Next week, when she takes the oath of office, Senator Kamala Harris will make history as the first woman, first African American, and first person of South Asian heritage to become vice president of the United States. But she won’t be the first person of color in the office. That honor belongs to Charles Curtis, an enrolled member of the Kaw Nation who served as President Herbert Hoover’s veep for his entire first term from 1929 to 1933. Prejudice against Native Americans was widespread and intense at the time, but Curtis’s ascent to the office speaks to his skillful navigation of the political system. His rise also tells a broader story of how prominent Native Americans viewed how their communities should assimilate within a predominately white society and government. The policies Curtis pursued in Congress and then as vice president, specifically those on Native issues, cloud his legacy today despite his groundbreaking achievements.
Curtis was born in 1860 to a white father from a wealthy Topeka family and a mother who was one quarter Kaw (a tribe also known as Kanza or Kansa). When he was young, Curtis’ mother died, and his father fought in the Civil War for the United States. Growing up, he spent time living with both his sets of grandparents and for eight years, he lived on the Kaw reservation. Curtis grew up speaking Kanza and French before he learned English.
Mark Brooks, site administrator for the Kansas Historical Society’s Kaw Mission site, says Curtis was known for his personal charisma.
“He had a knack for conversation,” Brooks says. “He was just a very likeable person even early on when he was just a young boy in Topeka.”
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