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The Conflicted Legacy of the First Vice President of Color

January 25, 2021 in History

By Becky Little

Vice President Charles Curtis, a member of the Kaw Nation who served under Herbert Hoover, supported assimilation policies.

While the election of Kamala Harris to vice president is historic, she isn’t the first person of color to hold the position. The first was actually Charles Curtis, who took office nearly a century ago.

READ MORE: 7 Firsts in US Presidential Election History

Curtis was a member of the Kaw Nation who served as Herbert Hoover’s vice president from 1929 to 1933, and he has a complicated historical legacy. Curtis supported women’s voting rights, child labor laws and the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act. At the same time, 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.

LISTEN NOW: The Complicated Political Legacy of VP Charles Curtis

Growing Up in Kansas

Vice President Charles Curtis and President Herbert Hoover, 1929.

Curtis was born in Topeka in 1860, one year before the Kansas Territory became the 34th state. Around age three, his mother died and his father joined the Union Army to fight in the Civil War. He lived at various times with his non-Native paternal grandparents and his Native maternal grandparents, Louis and Julie Pappan Gonville, who lived on the Kaw reservation in Kansas. As a young boy, he became known for winning races as a horse jockey.

Around 1873, when Louis and Julie were moving 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 basically just says, ‘You’re bound for more important things,’” says Kent Blansett, a professor of Indigenous studies and history at the University of Kansas who is a Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Shawnee and Potawatomi descendant from the Blanket, Panther and Smith families. 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 …read more


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