The claim that John Hanson was the first Black president of the United States circulated years before the internet. Social media in recent years have spread that erroneous claim. In 2020, several social media posts declared Hanson, not Barack Obama, as the first Black president of the United States. A black and white photo of a man in glasses is seen in the posts. The posts also claimed that Hanson was the first U.S. president, before George Washington.
The late comedian Dick Gregory is said to have popularized that belief in the 1990s. In May 2016, a Facebook post cited by USA Today said that Hanson, which was misspelled Hansen, was the first Black U.S. president. “Barack Obama Was Never The First Black President. John Hansen Was The First Black President & He Also The First President Of The United States Even Before George Washington. We Never Hear About Him In Black History At All,” the post, which is a photo of another post, claimed.
That post went viral once more two years ago. Meanwhile, the post, which was shared thousands of times on Facebook, confuses two men by the name of John Hanson. They are both historical figures but one is White and the other Black. The Black John Hanson, who was wrongly claimed to be the first Black U.S. president, was actually a former slave from Maryland who bought his freedom and moved to Liberia in 1827.
Liberia, which was at the time a West African colony, had been founded by freed American slaves a few years before Hanson moved there. The American Colonisation Society (ACS) founded in 1816 by a group of Quakers and slaveholders was attracted to colonization, and in the mid-1800s it started working on a voyage to relocate freed Blacks to western Africa. From January 1820, the ACS began sending ships from New York to West Africa. With $100,000 from U.S. Congress, the ACS arranged for 86 freed Blacks who set sail from New York on February 6, and by March 9, the team had reached a small island, off the coast of Sierra Leone.
Unfortunately, the freed Blacks, over the course of the year, suffered on the island after being stricken with malaria and having to face attacks from indigenous people. Reports state that an agent of the ACS later purchased a piece of land in present-day Liberia, which became the home of the team the following year. The colony was named Liberia in 1824 and its capital was given the name Monrovia. Within four decades, between 15,000 and 20,000 freed slaves and Africans rescued from illegal slave ships joined the colony, which suffered from diseases, attacks from local people, the harsh climate, poor housing conditions, and lack of food and medicine.
As criticisms against colonization grew, the ACS, by 1840 was largely bankrupt and thus, asked the settlers to declare independence in 1846. The settlers took the move in 1847, founding the Republic of Liberia, “the first independent democratic republic in Africa, and just the second republic—after Haiti—to be founded by blacks.”
Hanson emigrated to Liberia in 1827 through the ACS. Born into slavery in Baltimore, Maryland, around 1791, not much is known about Hanson’s early life besides the fact that he purchased his freedom before moving to Liberia. There, he soon became a merchant and a member of the political elite formed by the former slaves there. The ACS, which was in charge of the colony before its independence in 1847, organized the Commonwealth of Liberia in 1839 and appointed its first governor, Thomas Buchanan. Hanson was elected as a senator of the Colonial Council in December 1840, representing Grand Bassa County, Liberia.
Hanson died 20 years later in Liberia, at the age of 69. Then-Liberian president Stephen Allen Benson described him as a “faithful, loyal, and patriotic servant of the young nation.” Augustus Washington, a Black photographer working with the ACS in the late 1850s, captured portraits of Liberia’s emigrants, including a daguerreotype of Hanson.
As earlier stated, Hanson has often been confused with a White politician of the same name. This other John Hanson, who was described in the Facebook posts as “president before George Washington,” was the first president of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation, the agreement the government of the U.S. operated under before the introduction of the Constitution in 1781. This John Hanson served as president of the Continental Congress before the U.S. Constitution officially established the office of president of the United States.
According to Reuters, the Articles of Confederation ratified in 1781 during the Revolutionary War “created a loose confederation of sovereign states and a weak central government, leaving most of the power with the state governments.”
This White John Hanson, who served as a delegate to the Continental Congress from 1780 to 1782, also served as president of the congress from 1781 to 1782. Due to his position as president of the congress, some have wrongly claimed that he, not George Washington, was the first U.S. president. On the whole, John Hanson or any of the men who held the title of president before Washington was not Black.
Barack Obama became the first Black president of the United States in January 2009. The John Hanson shown in the image of the daguerreotype was a senator in Liberia and he is not the same person as the John Hanson who was the first president of the Continental Congress.