Was the late J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous former director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, part black?
Millie McGhee is convinced he was. She's an African-American teacher who says her late grandfather told her that Hoover was his second cousin. That was 40 years ago. Now, she's written and self-published a book on the subject: Secrets Uncovered -- J. Edgar Hoover, Passing for White (available from amazon.com).
Larry Carroll thinks he was, too. He's a former CBS anchorman and NBC network news correspondent who's producing a documentary on Hoover's black connection. Initially skeptical, Carroll now says the evidence is compelling.
Some of that evidence was assembled by George Ott, a Salt Lake City, Utah, genealogist who's traced various Hoover family birth and death records that seem to confirm at least part of McGhee's familial oral history and, at a minimum, raise questions about his provenance.
Journalist Edward Spannaus also believes that Hoover, who died in 1972, "had something to hide." He says it may help explain the former director's persecution of black Americans during the 1950s and 1960s.
In fact, as various memoirs have established, Hoover was obsessed with Martin Luther King Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Earlier, he targeted black newspaper publishers and leftist black celebrities such as singer Paul Robeson.
Rumours of Hoover's black roots are not entirely new, of course. Some years ago, novelist Gore Vidal told biographer Anthony Summers ( Official and Confidential: the Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover) that it was "always said in my family and around the city [Washington, D.C.]that he was mulatto. People said he came from a family that had 'passed.' "
It was Summers's book that also aired suggestions that Hoover was a closet homosexual who occasionally dressed in drag.
Still, as Spannaus concedes, there is not yet a smoking gun, nothing to indicate definitively that Hoover was one-quarter, one-eighth, one-16th or even one-32nd black. Instead, there is a thickening dossier of circumstantial evidence that some believe corroborates McGhee's allegation.
McGhee herself was raised on a former slave plantation owned by a Hoover family in Pike County, Miss. These Hoovers, she claims, were related to another Hoover clan living in Washington, although genealogist Ott is skeptical on this point.
In 1960, McGhee came home from a history class to ask whether J. Edgar Hoover might be related to the Hoovers in her own family.
"He's my second cousin," her grandfather told her. "But you must never tell anyone because it's a family secret. This man has a lot of power and we could be burned up. I said, 'He can't do that.' But he said he could, and had already destroyed the evidence of his birth."
According to the extended family history, the McGhees descend from the union of a black slave woman and her white slave master. In 1814, that relationship yielded one Elizabeth Allan, who went to Maryland with a William Hoover. In those days, it was not uncommon for white plantation owners to take black women as "bedwarmers." The McGhee tale goes on to say that Elizabeth had seven children by William Hoover; one light-skinned daughter, Emily Allan, was allegedly taken from her to Mississippi, where she became mistress to yet another William Hoover. An older child -- John T. Hoover -- later had a son of his own, Dickerson N. Hoover, who was the father of J. Edgar.
McGhee's grandfather, known as Big Daddy, was the grandson of Emily.
Genealogist Ott says the only way Big Daddy Allan and J. Edgar could have been second cousins was if they had shared a great-grandparent.
In support of that claim, he found one record of the transfer of a slave named E. Allan from the D.C. area to Mississippi. Just how she arrived there is among the many unsolved mysteries surrounding the case.
"But Big Daddy was right about a lot of things," says Ott, who's been researching family histories for 25 years. "And so perhaps he was right about J. Edgar being his second cousin. There's still a lot of unanswered questions. And more research needs to be done. But I'd put it at 50-50 that J. Edgar was one-16th black."
Others are less convinced. Another Hoover biographer, Curt Gentry, says he came across nothing about Hoover's black ancestry in preparing his 1991 book, J. Edgar Hoover, The Man and His Secrets.
"There was never a hint of it in my research or I would have pursued it," Gentry says. "She [McGhee]has called me three or four times on this thing. I don't know anything except what they've told me. I'm interested in finding out. I'm not discounting it, but I'm not pushing it. I do know Hoover had his agents censor the papers of Roosevelt-era Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. I presume it happened with other things, certainly the FBI's own files."
Documentarian Carroll, recently returned from a fact-finding mission to Pike County, Miss., says that in explorations of dozens of graveyards, he found only one where black slaves and white slave owners were buried side by side -- and their names were Allan and Hoover respectively.
The problem with this evidence, says Ott, is that there's no indication that these Mississippi Hoovers had any connection at all to the Washington Hoovers. However, Ott says it is curious that J. Edgar did not file an official birth certificate until 1938, when he was 43 years old. "His much older brother and sister had their arrivals registered at the time of their birth. So why didn't he?"
He also says there is ample evidence that light-skinned blacks often "passed" in white society during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, Ott has done work for comedian Bill Cosby's wife, whose father was "so white he passed as an officer in World War II."
Carroll, who has shot more than 20 hours of videotape, says he will package the edited documentary for television or theatrical release. He does not expect it to be screened before next February.
"This will be a shocker," he insists, "because it has the potential for rearranging how we look at the history of the 20th century as it applies to one of its most notorious characters."
In the film, Carroll interviews psychologists who speculate on the effect Hoover's "secret" might have had on his psyche.
"Having something to hide made him obsessive about the secrets of others," Carroll says. "It was a self-hate syndrome, played out against the people he hated."
And there are implications, Carroll maintains, for all Americans. "Here was a nation built on the idea of equality. But the same divisions have divided us longer than we've been a nation. Even if we never find the smoking gun, it's a wakeup call. The point is made, because everybody knows that there's nobody who is pure anything in this country or the rest of the world. White, black, it's almost irrelevant, but it demonstrates the idiocy of our behaviour."
Millie McGhee meanwhile, who has just released a second edition of her book, continues to cling to her grandfather's story. "Who am I to say that my grandfather wasn't telling the truth?" she asks. "Why would he have lied to me?"