Kamala Devi Harris is the first female, Black and Asian vice president; but not the first VP of colour widely acclaimed. The first U.S vice president of colour is Charles Curtis.
The world stood still on 20 January 2020 as Kamala Harris was inaugurated as the 49th vice president of the United States. The inauguration means she is the United States' first female vice president, the highest-ranking female official in U.S. history, and the first African American and first Asian American vice president.
However, many reputable media houses and publications report that she is the first vice president of colour is untrue. Charles Curtis, who served as vice president under Herbert Hoover from 1929 to 1933 is the first vice president of colour in the United States history.
Curtis's mother was a Native American who belonged to the Kaw Nation. He was raised on a reservation by his maternal grandparents, where he spoke the Indigenous language and lived in a tepee.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Curtis' name is not often mentioned in history is what many publications have termed a 'conflicted legacy' while in office.
Curtis was a Kaw Nation member who served as Herbert Hoover's vice president from 1929 to 1933, and he has a complicated historical legacy. Curtis supported child labour laws and the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act.
During his time in office, he promoted assimilationist policies that harmed many Native Americans. One of his most significant impacts on U.S. policy is the Curtis Act of 1898, which weakened Native governments and helped break up Indigenous reservations.
Around 1873, when Curtis' parents moved with the Kaw Nation to the Indian Territory in the current state of Oklahoma, Curtis planned to go with them. But his grandmother dissuaded him from joining them.
"His grandmother just says, 'You're bound for more important things,'" says Kent Blansett, an indigenous studies and history professor at the University of Kansas.
Blansett notes that Curtis' grandmother wasn't telling Curtis to turn away from his people but to help his people by taking another path.
Curtis followed his grandmother's advice and stayed in Topeka, becoming a lawyer and a politician. His Native heritage, something white politicians and journalists often referred to disparagingly, was public knowledge during his entire political career. In 1884, he won an elected seat as the Shawnee County attorney. Eight years later, he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican.
In the House, Curtis introduced "An Act for the Protection of the People of Indian Territory," commonly known as the Curtis Act of 1898. This act built on the Dawes Act of 1887, which had introduced the policy of "allotment." Under this policy, the U.S. government forcibly broke up Native American reservations—where land and resources were communally shared—into privately-held properties.
Native people who couldn't afford to maintain their "allotments" lost them, allowing white Americans to buy the land and move into what was once a reservation.
"The Curtis Act was something that caused irrevocable damage," Blansett says. "Even years later, [Curtis] would do a radio show with the famous Cherokee Will Rogers in the 1930s, and Will got booed for having Curtis on. Because in Oklahoma, Cherokees especially couldn't stand what the Curtis Act did [to the Cherokee nation]."
Why had Curtis, one of the first Native congressmen, sponsored the act in the first place?
Colonization led him to believe "that assimilation and acculturation were inevitable for Native peoples," Blansett says. "It's impressed upon him that our traditions were something that could be holding us back [from full citizenship], and this was a prevalent sentiment at the time"—though Blansett notes "it's not to excuse some of the things that he did and didn't do in that office."
Curtis went on to be a U.S. Senator and then, in 1929, the first person of colour to serve as vice president.
He and President Herbert Hoover didn't have a close relationship, and many Americans had the impression that Curtis didn't have a role in the White House. In any case, Curtis' vice presidency was overshadowed by Hoover's disastrous response to the stock market crash and the Great Depression.
During the 1932 election, Hoover campaign slogans like "Play Safe with Hoover," "We Are Turning the Corner" or "Don't Change Now" did little to inspire public confidence in his administration; and Hoover and Curtis lost in a landslide to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Curtis continued working in politics by becoming chairman of the Republican senatorial campaign committee in 1935.
He died the next year at age 76, leaving behind a complicated political legacy.