Charles Curtis was vice president under President Herbert Hoover
Almost a hundred years ago, the United States elected its first minority vice president, Republican Charles Curtis.
Among other things like abolishing slavery, which the Democrats fought to keep, a Republican with non-European ancestry was the first to reach the highest ranks of the federal government.
For four years, Curtis was vice president under President Herbert Hoover during turbulent economic times, namely the great depression.
Born in 1860 in the Kansas Territory, Curtis spent many of his formative years on an Indian reservation.
His mother died when he was 3 years old.
Curtis then moved in with his maternal grandmother on the Kaw Indian Reservation, where he later learned English and French as well as his own native language.
His father, Oren Arms Curtis, had Anglo heritage.
However, historians are split about whether Charles Curtis was one-eighth or three-eighths native Indian, despite him remaining a member of the Kaw Tribe his entire life.
“He’d like to say, ‘I’m three-eighths Caw Indian and 100% American,’” University of Kansas historian David Hamilton told the Washington Examiner.
“And that Indian heritage was important to him as a Kansas politician.”
During Curtis’s time on the Kaw reservation, the Kansas frontier remained bloody with conflicts between warring tribes which forced him to live with his paternal grandfather in Topeka.
“At the age of 8, he was tasked with informing the state government about a Cheyenne Indian raid.”
Curtis’s fondness for politics began to show as he got older.
His nickname at the time was the “Indian jockey” and he graduated law school before winning an election for Shawnee County attorney in 1884.
Eight years later, he was elected to Congress as a Republican in an upset election that broke the Democratic stronghold in his district.
In 1907, Curtis was appointed a senator and remained in office through 1913.
In 1914, he won Kansas’s other Senate seat, just after the 17th Amendment instituted the direct election of senators.
After Republicans won a Senate majority in 1918, Curtis rose to majority whip.
He then led the opposition to the agenda of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson.
Curtis then became Senate majority leader in the latter half of the 1920s.
“He was the first Republican to have the title as majority leader in Congress. It was only in the ’20s that both parties began to formally refer to their leader as the ‘majority leader’ or ‘minority leader,’” Hamilton said.
“He’s the classic example of a nonideological legislator. He played some role in Indian affairs issues when he was in Congress.”
Curtis’s dreams turned toward the White House following President Calvin Coolidge’s decision in 1927 to forgo another term.
But his run for Republican Party’s presidential nomination the following year was fairly unfortunate.
Curtis earned just 64 votes on the ballot a the 1928 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, compared to 837 for Hoover, commerce secretary in GOP administrations for much of the 1920s.
But the party still gave Curtis the running mate slot.
Their ticket won the 1928 election in a landslide, with 58.2% of the vote and carrying 40 states.
Although Curtis’s vice presidency was historic in nature, most of the country thought little of his Indian background.
“Had Al Smith, who was Catholic and the first Catholic on a presidential ticket, beaten Hoover, that would have been more significant at the time,” said Hamilton.
“These religious divisions carried much more weight back then. Race was less consequential then because there weren’t any real efforts to address civil rights or things of that nature. It doesn’t divide the nation as it does today.”
But Curtis’s reputation with the public tanked following the stock market crash of 1929.
In 1932, he lost his renomination bid for vice president on the first bid, although he won the spot in a runoff, even after losing the confidence of Hoover
Hoover and Curtis lost the 1932 election to Franklin D. Roosevelt and John Nance Garner in a landslide.
Curtis later became chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee and worked to get the Republicans back to a majority in the upper chamber in 1936.
But Curtis died from a heart attack a year before that election before being buried in his native Kansas.