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Vicente Guerrero: The First Black President in North America

Henry Louis Gates Jr. - The Root
go to original
November 5, 2012

Vicente Guerrero, 1850 - Oil on canvas, by Anacleto Escutia. (Museo Nacional de Historia, Castillo de Chapultepec, Mexico)

Who was the First Black President? That would be Barack Obama, right? While most of us have assumed this, and while this has been widely reported in the media, it turns out that this is not true. As a matter of fact, the first black president in North America - for that matter, the first black man to hold the specific title of president anywhere - was a man named Vicente Guerrero, and he became the second president of the Republic of Mexico in 1829. (The first black head of state in the Caribbean was Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who became the first governor-general of the Independent Republic of Haiti in 1804.)  

In other words, Mexico had its own Barack Obama 54 years before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and fully 179 years before we did! And the comparison with Lincoln is not an idle one: Guerrero, like Lincoln, has been immortalized for abolishing slavery in Mexico.

Disparagingly nicknamed "el Negro Guerrero" by his political enemies, Guerrero would in the United States have been classified as a mulatto. According to one of his biographers, Theodore G. Vincent, Guerrero was of mixed African, Spanish and Native American ancestry, and his African ancestry most probably derived from his father, Juan Pedro, whose profession "was in the almost entirely Afro-Mexican profession of mule driver." Some scholars speculate that his paternal grandfather was either a slave, or a descendant of African slaves.

Guerrero was born in 1783 in a town near Acapulco called Tixtla, which is now located in the state that bears his name. It is the only state named after a former Mexican head of state, and it is the location of the Costa Chica, the traditional home of the Afro-Mexican community in Mexico.

Guerrero joined the fight for Mexico's independence from Spain in 1810, under the leadership of another black man, also a mulatto, General José María Morelos y Pavon, a Catholic priest who played the dominant leadership role in the war until he was killed in combat in 1815. Morelos, like Guerrero, is one of Mexico's greatest heroes. (His face graces the 50 peso bill, and a Mexican state is also named for him.) Within a year of Morelos' death, Guerrero became general of the rebels, fighting guerrilla skirmishes until Mexico was granted its independence in 1821.

Guerrero ran twice for president, once in 1824 and again in 1828, both times unsuccessfully. Claiming foul play, Guerrero and his supporters rebelled, toppled the new government, and Guerrero became president on April 1, 1829.

On September 16, 1829 - Mexico's Independence Day - Guerrero abolished slavery throughout the country, which has led many historians to refer to him as the "Abraham Lincoln of Mexico," though Lincoln more properly should be referred to as "the Vicente Guerrero of the United States." (And this action, by the way, was part of the reason that Texans fought to secede from Mexico a few years later, in 1836; remember the Alamo? That's in part what Davy Crockett and his compatriots were fighting about in that Disney series we watched as children, but Disney left out the role of slavery!) And like Lincoln, Guerrero suffered for his actions: Three months after abolishing slavery, he was driven out of office. Two years later, Guerrero joined the rebel forces fighting against the new government. Betrayed by one of his friends, he was executed in January 1831.

Though historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof (and the inspiration for this current series), didn't mention Guerrero, he did write about him in his two-volume series World's Great Men of Color, in which he dubbed Guerrero "the George Washington and Abraham Lincoln combined of Mexico," because "he freed his country and then freed its slaves" - an assessment that is quite on the mark.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root.

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