Severiano de Heredia was the son of prosperous mulatto parents but was sent packing to France at the early age of 10 due to turmoil in Cuba. The journey led to the historic chapter of his life – becoming the first mayor of African descent of a major European city.
Heredia was born in Havana, Cuba, on November 8, 1836. His parents were Henri de Heredia and Beatriz de Cárdenas but it is believed that while registered as a “mulatto born free” in the parish of Jesus del Monte, his actual father was his godfather, Don Ignacio Heredia y Campuzano.
To escape the turmoil in Cuba, at age 10, his parents packed him off to France where he studied in Paris at the prestigious Lyceum Louis le Grand; graduating with highest honors (winner of the Grand Prix d’Honneur) in 1855.
Living comfortably on the inheritance he acquired upon the death of his godfather, Heredia worked as a journalist, literary critic, and poet. In 1868, he married Henriette Hanaire with whom he had a son, Henri-Ignace, who died in an accident at age 12; and a daughter, Marcelle, who became a neurophysiologist. Concurrent with the establishment of the Third Republic in 1870, Heredia was granted French citizenship which allowed him access to political office.
Heredia became a progressive who favored universal education, advocating strongly for the separation of church and state. He also pushed for industrialization, a free press, women’s rights, and child labor reforms.
In 1873, he was elected Counselor of Ternes, representing the 17th Arrondissement (administrative district) and thus given a seat on the Municipal Council (Conseil Municipal) of Paris. He worked on this governing body for six years.
On August 1, 1879, Heredia was elected President (equivalent to mayor) of the Municipal Council for a term of six months since the position of President rotated between Council members.
Representing the 17th Arrondissement, one of the most populous districts in the city, Heredia ascended to a seat in the Chamber of Deputies (Chambre des Députés) in the National Assembly (Assemblée Nationale, or French Parliament) in 1881. In 1887, he joined the cabinet of Prime Minister Maurice Rouvier for eight months as Minister of Public Works and had the opportunity to advance his priorities in regards to public schools and continuing education, libraries, ecology, and transportation.
During his brief term of leadership, Heredia responded to a deadly winter that saw temperatures plunge to 23 degrees below zero. He found shelter for the homeless and ordered 12,000 unemployed persons to keep the streets clean and open to traffic. Paris then was a metropolis of two million inhabitants.
Heredia did not escape the attention of French conservatives and racists. One newspaper columnist referred to him contemptuously as “The Negro of the Élysée” (Palace) while others called him the “chocolate minister” or worse. Notwithstanding the occasional insult, he was widely recognized for his intelligence, cultured demeanor, and humanity.
Severiano de Heredia was also a secular-minded freethinker who fought in favor of public school and continuing education. As an early ecologist, he devoted himself to improving the invention of the electric car.
Some versions claim that his last years were dedicated to working in the development of the electric car, which is why some qualify him as a pioneer of environmentalism. They also say that in this activity, he pledged up to the last weight of his fortune, dying in misery. There are no clear precedents in this regard.
Unsuccessful in the elections of 1889 and 1893, he retired from politics.
He went on to succeed Victor Hugo as president of the Association Philotechnique and a high-ranking Freemason. In retirement, he enjoyed reading literature and almost slipped into oblivion until a revival of interest in the historic import of his career.
Heredia died suddenly in his home of meningitis on February 9, 1901, and was buried in the Batignolies Cemetery in Paris. He was 65 at the time of his death.