Jackie Kennedy’s ‘Negroid’ Appearance, ‘Mulatto’ Ancestors, and Father Whose Swarthy Complexion Earned him the Nickname ‘Black Jack’

Jacqueline wraps her arm around John’s as the Kennedys attend a 1962 holiday party in the White House.
Jacqueline wraps her arm around John’s as the Kennedys attend a 1962 holiday party in the White House.

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. 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.

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SOURCE: New England Historical Society