15 May 2023


Lost Capitol Hill: J. Edgar Hoover’s Ancestry

When I wrote my book about the scandals of Capitol Hill, I wrote a whole chapter on the Hill’s most notorious son, J. Edgar Hoover. One story in particular would have been more fitting in my follow-up book on Urban Legends, but I did not have room for it there, so here it is:

Was the late J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous former director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, part black? –The Globe and Mail August 14, 2000.

This article quotes a number of people around the country who are convinced that Hoover was, indeed, part African American, and uses this to attempt to explain his psyche. When it comes to actual evidence, however, there is precious little–– and no attempt to tap into the genealogical data that exists for Hoover and his family.

One thing is clear – if Hoover were to have African ancestry, it would be on his father’s side; his mother’s family can all directly trace their forebears to Germany or Switzerland. On his father’s side, it is not as clear, as only his four great-grandparents are known. Where their families came from is not known. However, all four listed as white in the 1870 census. The 1880 census also lists their parents’s place of origin, indicating that William Hoover ––who is most often targeted as the source of the rumor–– was born in Maryland of parents who were both born in Pennsylvania.

Detail of 1972 drawing by Bob Dara showing Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, and J. Edgar Hoover hunting with clubs (Yanker Poster Collection/LOC)

An article in the Washington Post published in 2011 quotes a woman who states that her grandfather had told her that he was J. Edgar’s second cousin. This would have made him the great grandson of William Hoover. However, there is no indication that the elder Hoover spent any time in Mississippi, or owned any enslaved people. There was indeed a Hoover family in Mississippi who did enslave people, but Hoover is not exactly an uncommon name.

This Post article expands on the possibility to attempt to explain the FBI director’s work against the civil rights movement, starting with his targeting of Marcus Garvey in the 1920s, and continuing through the ’50s and ’60s in his surveillance of Martin Luther King.

The most intriguing evidence is that which does not exist: J. Edgar’s birth certificate. It was not filed until after his mother’s death in 1938. The argument can be made that he was not, in fact, the son of Dickerson Naylor Hoover and Anna Maria (Scheitlin) Hoover and this was covered up by the family. There is also an odd 12-year age gap between J. Edgar and his older sister Lillian, though it turns out that there was a sister born in between, in 1895, but she died in 1893, two years before J. Edgar was born.

Beyond this, it is all speculation. And, frankly, there is no reason to believe that J. Edgar Hoover needed any further reason to be an implacable foe to those trying to right the wrongs inflicted on the African American population beyond simple racism.

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