Who Was the 1st Black Duke?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Meet the scion of a legendary Italian dynasty.

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alessandrodemedicibronzinowikicommons575
Alessandro de' Medici, by Agnolo Bronzino, c. 1560 (Wikipedia Commons)

Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.

(The Root) -- Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 31: Who was the first black head of state in modern Western history? Hint: It wasn't the Duke of Earl.

I discovered the answer to the question above while visiting the Walker Art Museum's exhibition "Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe," now at Princeton University. I was astonished when I encountered Bronzino's "Portrait of Duke Alessandro de' Medici," a mulatto by the sight of him who, the exhibit claimed, also happened to be a member of one of the most powerful families in history and the first Duke of Florence almost 500 years ago! 

Fascinated, I hurried home to see if Joel A. Rogers had included him in his various compilations of famous black people, many of whom were mixed race, liked this man appeared to be. Sure enough, Rogers listed him both in his 100 Amazing Facts and in Volume II of his The World's Great Men of Color. His conclusion startled me: "That Alessandro was a tyrant there is no doubt whatever," a remarkably frank assessment from Rogers, who had a tendency to romanticize the achievements of just about every person of even the proverbial "one drop" whom he discovered hidden in the shadows of world history. I wanted to know more about this man. Here are the highlights of what I learned.

A Pivotal Potentate

Like the first black president of Mexico, Vicente Guerrero, and our first black president, Barack Obama, Alessandro de' Medici (1511-1537) -- the first black head of state in the history of the modern Western world -- was a mulatto. He was the son of an African slave and one of two Medici males, either a duke or a future pope. With the latter's blessing, Alessandro served as duke himself -- of Florence -- from the age of 19 to his assassination at age 26 at the hands of his cousin. The reason the cousin gave: Alessandro was a tyrant out of step with his times, a military ruler in a republican age. 

Actually, Alessandro was a pivotal change agent in Florence's form of government -- and not for the better: His promotion to Duke was the fateful moment when republican government in Florence came to an end. As the art historian Paul Kaplan explained to me in an email, "The Medici had risen to power in Florence in the 1430s, but they were not able to obtain an official title to go with their supreme political authority in the city until 1529, when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Habsburg promised the Medici Pope, Clement VII, that he would make Alessandro the Duke of Florence. Alessandro actually returned to Florence as ruler in 1531, and in 1532 his hereditary ducal title was confirmed by the Emperor." The Medici clan retained this position until 1737.

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Alessandro's black African ancestry was captured in various media by contemporary Italian artists, and commented upon by those who knew him and by those who hated him after his death. Yet, until recently, as we might expect, art museum curators and art historians tended to downplay his blackness, perhaps because many royal families, including the Habsburgs, could trace their bloodlines directly to him. But thanks to the research of John K. Brackett, Paul Kaplan, Joaneth Spicer and Mario de Valdes y Cocom (hereafter Mario Valdes), Alessandro's African ancestry has been generally embraced by scholars. 

Do You Know Your Black History?

We'll bet you didn't know these "Amazing Facts" about people of African descent.

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