One hundred seventy years ago, President James Knox Polk appointed a new American Vice Consul to a Mexican outpost in California. The representative was a dark-skinned, industrious, somewhat mysterious, occasionally tempestuous, but usually friendly 35-year-old. When this bachelor died of brain fever three years later on May 18, 1848, he was San Francisco’s wealthiest man. His land holdings alone were worth at least $1.5 million—more than $30 million today. Today, William Leidesdorff, Jr., if remembered, is honored as America’s first black millionaire, the first African-American diplomat, one of California’s black founding fathers. Actually, although he claimed to be from the Caribbean, born on St. Croix in the Danish West Indies, Leidesdorff may have been born Wolf Leidesdorfer of Szathmar, Hungary, making him also Danish, white, and Jewish.
Of course, 19th century America’s reductionist, racist legal regime defined anyone with even a black great-grandparent as black. And Leidesdorff was coy. More recently, the half-white, half-black Barry Soetoro wavered before defining himself as a black man, and eventually became Barack Obama, the first black president. By contrast, the golfer Tiger Woods told Oprah Winfrey it “bothered” him when people praised him as the first African-American Masters’ winner, golf’s Jackie Robinson. He calls himself “Cablinasian,” his own word blending Caucasian, black, Indian, and Asian. (Many blacks saw this distancing as delusional. The olive-skinned Colin Powell said, “In America, which I love from the depths of my heart and soul, when you look like me, you’re black.”)
Leidesdorff’s achievements qualify him for the African-American pantheon. In the 1950s’ uplifting, self-justifying language, the black educator Sue Bailey Thurman wrote in her 1952 book Pioneers of Negro Origin in California: “No nationality or racial minority migrating to the state could wish to have a more distinguished antecedent.” But Leisdesdorff was also one of America’s multiculti pioneers, reflecting what J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur in 1783 called that “promiscuous breed,” the new “intermixed” American. Similarly, today’s America is becoming a creatively-mixed creole nation more than one perennially polarized as black versus white.