Dear Senator: Letters to a Political Rising Star

By Wendy Korwin

This is the second blog entry from the Warren G. Harding Papers project. Read our introductory post here. The Warren G. Harding Papers Project is supported by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

In 1900, Cornelio Vargas was a thirteen-year-old orphan from Guayama, Puerto Rico. Bessie Glenn had just graduated from Marysville High School and would attend Wilberforce University on a scholarship from the Ohio legislature. Nellie Silvus, a young woman who was visually impaired, worked at the Ohio State School for the Blind and was paid roughly half that of her sighted colleagues. What do these three individuals have in common? They each came to the attention of Warren G. Harding while the young future president served in the Ohio General Assembly.

Image of Warren G. Harding in1899

Bellefontaine Republican August 4, 1899

Warren G. Harding had just turned 34 when men living in Ohio’s 13th congressional district elected him to the State Senate.[1] He had recently met lawyer and lobbyist Harry Daugherty at a Republican campaign rally in Richwood. Daugherty would become his aide and campaign manager, and eventually serve as U.S. attorney general during Harding’s short, scandal-rich presidency.

Beyond Daugherty, Harding engaged with many ambitious and well-connected men in the early years of his career. The correspondence from Harding’s two terms in the Ohio Senate includes hundreds of invitations, suggestions, and requests for favors and political appointments. As I catalog the Warren G. Harding Papers, I meet some of these people, and I inspect their letters with an eye for the relationships they were forging with a future president. Some wrote to Harding on their own behalves. Others wrote for their friends, sons, nephews, and friends’ sons and nephews; and, very occasionally, to endorse a woman as stenographer or clerk.[2] Not all of these folks – indeed, very few of them – rose in the ranks to become members of Harding’s inner circle. Most, I suspect, simply hoped for a decent gig as postmaster, or enrolling clerk in the General Assembly (a position typically filled by an African American man, I’ve learned), or maybe third assistant sergeant-at-arms, lest tragedy befall the first or second assistant sergeant-at-arms.

This blog post introduces three people who were the subjects of Harding’s early political correspondence. These are non-Daughertys. They’re individuals who lived much further from traditional seats of power – partially for reasons tied to their race, gender, and bodies – whose paths crossed with Harding’s in ways that illuminate his perspectives and investments.

Cornelio Vargas

On March 19, 1900, John S. Jones, president of the Board of Trustees of the Ohio Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphans’ Home in Xenia, wrote to Captain George B. Donavin[3] about a boy from Puerto Rico who had assisted Ohio troops in the 4th O.V.I. during the Spanish-American War. Newspapers reported that the Ohio soldiers had “adopted” Cornelio Vargas as their “pet” or “mascot.”[4] This patronizing, animalistic language obscures the fact that Vargas helped the American troops as a translator. Accounts differ as to how, but by 1900 he had ended up in Ohio (one newspaper article claims he was a stowaway; other reports make it seem as though the soldiers invited his passage in some way). In his letter, Jones explained that by Ohio law, Vargas was not entitled to admission to the state-run orphans’ home. However, “the case, which the facts of which you are familiar, is a most pathetic one that appeals to patriotism and humanity.”[5] The only way to accommodate Vargas would be through a joint resolution passed by both houses of the Ohio General Assembly. Harding introduced this measure to the Senate, who voted unanimously in its favor:[6]

Image-2-Senate-Journal.jpg

Ohio Senate Journal, 1900

Harding’s relationship with Cornelio Vargas did not end there. Following his 1905 graduation from the orphans’ home, Vargas lived in Marion, trained to become a printer (like Harding), and secured a position in the Columbus post office. After moving back to Puerto Rico in adulthood, he paid several visits to his friends in Marion. Twenty years after their paths first crossed, Harding was elected president, a position which, thanks to the Spanish-American War, also gave him executive power over the territory of Puerto Rico. One of his first appointments in 1921 resulted in Vargas being named as postmaster of Guayama – the town where he had first met the Ohio soldiers. Years after Harding’s death, the Marion Star published a lengthy article about Vargas’ visit to the memorial “of the man whom he regards as one of the finest who ever lived.”[7]

Bessie Glenn

Central State University has its roots in an 1887 resolution passed by the Ohio state legislature, which established a two-year program known as the Combined Normal and Industrial Department at Wilberforce University. To forward their goal of providing vocational training to African Americans, members of the Ohio House and Senate could award an annual scholarship for a student from their county to attend.

“I want to put an application for Miss Bessie Glenn,” wrote George McPeck of the Marysville Light & Water Company, “a graduate of our High School and one of the nicest little girls you will find anywhere and who I believe if admitted will make the most creditable record of herself.”[8] (Marysville schools would have been legally integrated at this time.) Receiving no reply, McPeck wrote to Harding the following week to press the issue, noting that even “a democratic friend of mine said she is a ‘sweet little girl’ and bright and beside[s] it would be good politics.”[9] From these letters and other accounts, there is no doubt of Bessie Glenn’s intelligence and talent. But the diminutive descriptions of her as “sweet” and a “little girl” (she was 19), and passing mention of her use as a political accessory, is certainly part of her story.

Bessie Glenn did receive that scholarship, and she and her sister Nellie both attended the teachers’ program at Wilberforce. Bessie graduated with honors in 1902, and a few years later she wrote a letter to Florence Harding that is now preserved among her husband’s papers. Glenn wished to become the first African American teacher at the Ohio Girls’ Industrial Home. “I am informed that there are incorrigible colored girls, inmates of that Institution,” she wrote. “Mrs. Harding, if ‘those girls’ are admitted why cannot colored girls who have duly educated themselves be admitted to teach in said Institution[?]” This time, Bessie Glenn didn’t need a local businessman to represent her. She stated her own wishes, and did so strategically to a politician’s wife. Glenn also reminded Mrs. Harding that her father was a taxpayer who “by his votes has aided your Husband to be Senator.”[10]

Four years later, Bessie Glenn gained the appointment she sought to become the first African American teacher at the Girls’ Industrial Home, a post she held for over a decade.[11] Glenn left the Girls’ Industrial Home in the early 1920s to join her sister Nellie, first in Cadiz and later in Columbus. This photograph from our collections does not identify any individuals, but I believe it could be from Glenn’s time there:

Photograph of class of African American students at the Ohio Girls' Industrial Home

Girls’ Industrial Home, Photographs of Grounds and Activities, SAS 1008 AV Box 1 Folder 5

Nellie Silvus

The third person featured in this post, Nellie Silvus, left a briefer record than either Cornelio Vargas or Bessie Glenn. In 1902, Warren Harding’s sister Mary wrote from the Ohio School for the Blind in Columbus, where she worked as a teacher (Mary was herself visually impaired, as was Silvus, a former student at the institution). It seems that the school’s desire to provide employment for its graduates did not translate into fair treatment toward them. Mary, who was savvy about her brother’s potential influence, entreated him to intervene:

Miss Silvis [SIC] is the (blind) girl who answers the door bell, conducts the visitors to the reception room, answers both phones from eight in the morning ill five thirty P.M. Takes and sends all messages (for the pupils for they are not allowed to use the phones). Calls all the employe[e]s, teachers and other members of the Faculty to the phone when they are wanted. Rings the class bel and recess bell 16 times during the day. Receives and signs for the express packages that come to the building…. and for all this, she only receives twelve dollars a month, while the other attendant (who takes the visitors through the house when there are any to go through) gets 21 per month. The salaries used to be the same.[12]

Mary’s appeal to her brother seems to have worked. A few months later, Silvus wrote to Harding herself after receiving word that her salary would be increased to match that of the other attendant (it looks like she might have used a Braille slate or something similar to compose her letter):

Nellie C. Silvus to Warren G. Harding, June 14, 1902, MSS 345 Box 36 Folder 10

 

Warren Harding was famous (infamous) for helping out his friends. In these cases, his friends and family urged him to intervene for the benefit of strangers, to demand that they be better served by state institutions: the Ohio Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home, the teachers’ training program at Wilberforce University, and the Ohio State School for the Blind. As Bessie Glenn’s letter to Mrs. Harding makes clear, sometimes these individuals also became their own advocates. Harding, from a position marked by his maleness, whiteness, and social privilege, can be credited for supporting them.

 


[1] Harding’s district encompassed Logan, Union, Marion, and Hardin Counties.
[2] Minne Rogers received several letters lauding her stenography skills, and she followed up with a letter to Harding herself.
[3] The letter is actually addressed to “Capt. Geo. W. Dunavin,” but I believe this is an error, as Captain George B. Donavin commanded troops in the Fourth Ohio Volunteer Infantry in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War. Jones also refers to “Cornelio Vargo” in this letter, but other sources make clear this is Vargas. John S. Jones evidently wasn’t great with names.
[4] For examples of this language, see “Mascot Brought from Porto Rico Returns as P.M.,” Washington Herald, January 30, 1921, 5; “Mascot of the 4th Ohio Realizes His Ambition, New York Tribune, March 15, 1921, 3.
[5] John S. Jones to George W. Dunavin [George B. Donavan], March 19, 1900, Warren G. Harding Papers, MSS 345 Box 32 Folder 9.
[6] Vargas’ name is also misspelled here, as Varga.
[7] “Puerto Rican Here to Pay Tribute to Memory of Man Who Aided Him,” Marion Star, August 18, 1939, 10.
[8] George McPeck to Warren G. Harding, August 27, 1900, Warren G. Harding Papers, MSS 345 Box 33 Folder 8.
[9] George McPeck to Warren G. Harding, September, 1900, Warren G. Harding Papers, MSS 345 Box 33 Folder 9.
[10] Bessie E. Glenn to Mrs. Warren G. Harding, May 30, 1905, Warren G. Harding Papers, MSS 345 Box 44 Folder 1.
[11] For an account of her work at the school, see Bessie Glenn, “Letter from the Girls Home,” Marysville Journal-Tribune, June 8, 1912, 4.
[12] Mary Harding to Warren G. Harding, March 6, 1902, Warren G. Harding Papers, MSS 345 Box 36 Folder 5.

 

Posted October 29, 2021

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