Robert Francis: Vice President Who?

Sculptor Moses Dykaar sculpture of Charles Curtis courtesy U.S. Senate

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is breaking a lot of glass ceilings. Harris will become the first female, first Black and first South Asian vice president when sworn in – but the first person of color to be vice president?

No. While there’s a meme going around showing photos of previous U.S. vice presidents and then a full-length photo of Kamala Harris that basically asks viewers to spot the differences, Harris is not the first person of color to be vice president. That honor belongs to someone who is the answer to one of the best – and likely most difficult – trivia questions out there: Who was President Herbert Hoover’s vice president?

The answer is Charles Curtis, born on Jan. 25, 1860, in Topeka, Kansas Territory. Most sources say Curtis had roughly about 3⁄8 Native American ancestry and 5⁄8 European American. His mother was Kaw, Osage, Potawatomi, and French, while his father was of English, Scots, and Welsh ancestry. From his mother’s side, Curtis was a descendant of chief White Plume of the Kaw Nation and chief Pawhuska of the Osage.

The Senate Historical Office says in its extensive biography of Curtis that he was the “first American of Indian ancestry to reach high office.”

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Here’s a story that Curtis told often, and it was apparently a key moment in his life:

Since Curtis could speak the Kaw language, he fit comfortably into the tribe. “I had my bows and arrows,” he later recalled, “and joined the other boys in shooting arrows at nickels, dimes, and quarters which visitors would place in split sticks.” In those still-frontier days, the Kaw reservation was frequently raided by nomadic Cheyenne Indians, and during one attack Charley was sent on a mission to inform Topeka. “I volunteered to make the trip,” he later told audiences. “When we heard the Cheyennes were coming, the horses and ponies were driven to pasture, some distance from my grandpa’s home, so there was no horse or pony to ride. I therefore, started out on foot, traveling during the night.” The next day, he arrived in Topeka, some sixty miles away. Curtis’ “cross-country run” made him a celebrity in North Topeka, but the incident also convinced his paternal grandparents, William and Permelia Curtis, that their grandson should be raised in the more “civilized” atmosphere of Topeka rather than return to the reservation …

Curtis had learned to ride Indian ponies bareback and won a reputation as a “good and fearless rider.” He soon became a full-fledged jockey and continued to ride until 1876. A fellow jockey described Curtis as “rather short and wiry” and “just another brush boy jockey,” explaining that eastern riders “called us brush boys because we rode in what would be called the sticks.” As a winning jockey, Curtis was known throughout Kansas as “The Indian Boy.” His mounts made a lot of money for the local gamblers and prostitutes who bet on him, and he recalled that after one race a madam bought him “a new suit of clothes, boots, hat and all,” and had a new jockey suit made for him; others bought him candy and presents. “I had never been so petted in my life and I liked it,” Curtis reminisced.

As a young man, Curtis showed a passion for politics. In 1880, during James Garfield’s campaign for president, Curtis donned an oilcloth cap and carried a torch in a Republican parade through Topeka. It was only a matter of time before the popular “Indian jockey” ran for office himself. In 1884, after shaking every hand in the district, Curtis won election as Shawnee county attorney. Since both his father and grandfather Curtis had operated saloons in North Topeka, he was supported by the liquor interests, which had also retained his law firm. But once elected, Curtis insisted on enforcing the state’s prohibition laws and closed down all of the saloons in the county. He won attention not only as a “dry,” but as a law-and-order prosecutor.

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Eventually elected to the House of Representatives, then to the U.S. Senate, Curtis became Republican Whip and then Majority Leader. He was apparently effective in getting legislation through the Senate. According to the Senate Historical Office, Curtis believed “that everything can be fixed by friendly and confidential getting together.” Wow, what a radical idea!

Asked to be vice president by Herbert Hoover, Curtis joined the ticket in 1928 and the pair won in a landslide. After he took the oath of office in the Senate Chamber, the presidential party proceeded to the East Portico of the United States Capitol for Hoover’s inauguration and Curtis had helped arrange for a Native American jazz band to perform. Wish there were recordings of that.

While it was historic, the vice presidency was – as it often is – not much of a path to power, and frustrating to someone who held the powerful position of Senate Majority Leader (Just ask LBJ). Plus, Hoover and Curtis never bonded and according to the Senate Historical Office, there was “little love to lose over the next four years.” Then there was that Great Depression thing.

After FDR defeated Hoover in November 1932, Curtis retired after almost 50 years in politics. He died in February 1936. He has been somewhat forgotten, but as Paul Harvey used to intone, “Now you know the rest of the story.”