NEW YORK - Harry Truman, who made civil rights a federal priority for the first time since Reconstruction, expressed strong racist sentiments before, during and after his presidency, a historian says.
Although Truman toned down his racist expressions after entering the White House in 1945, he continued to use racial slurs in private conversation for the rest of his life, said William Leuchtenburg, president of the American Historical Association.
Leuchtenburg, a University of North Carolina professor, is writing a book on Truman.
In 1911, the year he turned 27, Truman wrote to his future wife, Bess: "I think one man is just as good as another so long as he's honest and decent and not a nigger or a Chinaman. Uncle Will says that the Lord made a white man from dust, a nigger from mud, then He threw up what was left and it came down a Chinaman."
"(Uncle Will) does hate Chinese and Japs," Truman continued. "So do I. It is race prejudice, I guess. But I am strongly of the opinion Negroes ought to be in Africa, yellow men in Asia and white men in Europe and America."
More than 25 years later, Truman, then a U.S. senator from Missouri, wrote a letter to his daughter describing waiters at The White House as "an army of coons." In a letter to his wife in 1939 he referred to "nigger picnic day."
Leuchtenburg said recently that some scholars have known about Truman's racist utterances since his letters were opened. "But somehow," Leuchtenburg said, "this has not permeated the public consciousness."
Liz Safly, a librarian at the Truman Library in Independence, Mo., agreed that Truman's remarks were familiar to scholars. The "Uncle Will" quotation, she said, was contained in a volume of letters published in 1983.
Truman's attitudes toward race were shaped by his youth in Missouri. His grandparents had owned slaves; his mother was interned by Union troops during the Civil War and remained "violently unreconstructed" for the rest of her life. Young Harry developed "an abiding belief in white supremacy," Leuchtenburg said.
But, after succeeding Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman rose above his prejudices. In 1946, when he was told of assaults on black World War II veterans in the South, he exclaimed, "My God! I had no idea it was as terrible as that. We've got to do something!"
The president appointed a committee to study civil-rights abuses and later supported the panel's call for anti-lynching and anti-poll-tax legislation. He also ordered the desegregation of the armed forces and became the first president to campaign in Harlem, in New York City. As a result, he was pilloried by his old Southern Democratic allies.