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Father spoke of having Obama adopted

US immigration files from ’61 reveal Kenyan student’s plan

President Obama as a young boy, with his father, who left when his son was 2. President Obama as a young boy, with his father, who left when his son was 2. (Obama for America via Associated Press)
By Sally Jacobs
Globe Staff / July 7, 2011

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In the spring of 1961, President Obama’s father revealed a plan for his unborn son that might have changed the course of American political history.

The elder Barack H. Obama, a sophomore at the University of Hawaii, had come under scrutiny by federal immigration officials who were concerned that he had more than one wife. When he was questioned by the school’s foreign student adviser, the 24-year-old Obama insisted that he had divorced his wife in his native Kenya. Although his new wife, Ann Dunham, was five months pregnant with their child - who would be called Barack Obama II - Obama declared that they intended to put their child up for adoption.

“Subject got his USC wife ‘Hapai’ [Hawaiian for pregnant] and although they were married they do not live together and Miss Dunham is making arrangements with the Salvation Army to give the baby away,’’ according to a memo describing the conversation with Obama written by Lyle H. Dahling, an administrator in the Honolulu office of what was then called the US Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Obama, the Subject, and his USC, or United States citizen, wife, obviously, did not put their baby up for adoption. Whether the young couple actually considered such a step, or the elder Obama made the story up in order to appease immigration officials who at the time were considering his request for an extension of his stay in the United States, is unclear. Family members on both sides of the marriage now say they never heard any mention of adoption.

But his statement provides a unique glimpse into the relationship between the president’s parents and the fragility of his connection to the father whom he would little know.

Dahling’s memo, dated April 12, 1961, is one of dozens of documents in the elder Obama’s “alien’’ file released by the Department of Homeland Security in response to a Freedom of Information Act request made in the course of research on a biography of Obama’s father. Obama was visiting the United States on a foreign student visa which required him to apply for an annual extension of his stay during the five years he was attending US colleges.

The memo advised that officials should continue to monitor the senior Obama’s personal life, and raised concerns about his behavior, noting that the previous summer he had been warned about his “playboy ways.’’

Robert L. Gibbs, the former White House press secretary, said at the time the document was released that President Obama had never been told that his mother had considered putting him up for adoption. Nor, Gibbs said, was Obama previously aware of the INS memo. Gibbs said that the White House had made no effort to determine if Dunham had ever had a conversation with the Salvation Army. The president, he added, “is absolutely convinced that she did not.’’

From the early 20th century through the 1970s the Salvation Army operated nearly a dozen residential maternity homes throughout the United States, one of which was located in Honolulu. Residents who chose not to keep their babies were able to make arrangements to put them up for adoption through local agencies. The agency maintains records of its maternity homes but provides them only to birth mothers or children who request them, according to Kathy Lovin, public affairs manager for The Salvation Army’s western territory in Long Beach, Calif. Lovin declined to say whether Ann Dunham, who died in 1995, spoke with Salvation Army officials at all about the possibility of putting her child up for adoption.

Neither President Obama nor the White House has since asked the Salvation Army if there is any record that his parents talked with the organization regarding his possible adoption, according to a White House press person who declined to be identified.

The INS memo can be regarded from several perspectives. On the one hand, Ann Dunham had good reason to consider surrendering her child. At the time that she gave birth in 1961, Dunham was just 18 years old, and mixed-race marriage - while legal in Hawaii - was a felony in many of the 22 states in which it was banned. Even in Hawaii, the only state at the time with a nonwhite majority, blacks accounted for less than 1 percent of the population, and a black face drew curious stares on the streets of Honolulu.

In his memoir, “Dreams from My Father,’’ President Obama mused that his mother might have considered putting her child up for adoption given the cultural hostility to mixed race marriages that existed at the time. Even in sophisticated urban centers, he wrote, “. . . the hostile stares, the whispers, might have driven a woman in my mother’s predicament into a back-alley abortion - or at the very least to a distant convent that could arrange for adoption.’’

While it is possible that the elder Obama’s statement to the student adviser was true, family and friends say they do not believe she ever considered such a thing. Dunham, they maintain, was a bold iconoclast even as a young woman and regarded her unborn child as very much her responsibility, one that she would never have surrendered.

“I never heard any talk of adoption whatsoever,’’ said Charles Payne, Dunham’s maternal uncle, who is now in his 80s and living in Chicago. “Ann decided she had done this and this was her child and she was going to take care of him. From day one, as far as I could tell, she and Madelyn [Dunham] and Stanley [Dunham] were all completely committed to Barack.’’

Nor do several of Ann Dunham’s friends at the time recall her mentioning giving up her baby. On the contrary, Susan Botkin Blake, a high school friend of Dunham’s, describes how entranced her friend was with her small son during a visit to Seattle just weeks after he was born.

“She was wildly in love with Barack Obama, her husband, and very excited about her future with him,’’ recalled Blake. “From my perspective, she had no equivocation about her baby in the slightest. She was thrilled with him.’’

Barack Obama Sr., on the other hand, would have had reason to worry that having a child in the United States could have significant consequences. For starters, Obama, who had two children in Kenya, was having severe financial problems. Although he told Dunham that he had gotten divorced from his Kenyan wife, he apparently did not tell her about his other children.

Obama was a member of the Luo ethnic group, the third largest of Kenya’s tribes, among whose members polygamy was common. His own father had at least four wives. In fact, Obama was still married to his Kenyan wife, Grace Kezia Obama, and apparently worried about the financial burden of another child.

Of greater concern was his immigration status. At the time that he made his statement about adoption in spring 1961, Obama was in the midst of applying to the INS for an extension of his stay in the United States. Although it was a routine process that was required of foreign students periodically, the application entailed an examination of the student’s academic record and general behavior.

Obama would have wanted to present a case that would impress immigration authorities. A bigamist with a mixed-race baby, if that is how authorities chose to see him, was not likely to be the strongest of candidates. As Gibbs assessed the elder Obama’s possible motive: “He was trying to convince immigration to let him stay. So, part of his effort was to convince immigration that some of the responsibilities that he had he would not continue to have.’’

University of Hawaii and federal immigration authorities were already alarmed about Obama’s relationships with women and perplexed as to his marital status. Since his arrival at the university in 1959, Obama had repeatedly failed to complete routine paperwork at UH’s foreign students office regarding his domestic status that would have clarified whether he had a wife in Kenya, according to an employee in the office who declined to be identified. Even the exact year of his own birth was unclear. Obama alternately reported to immigration and academic officials that he was born in both 1934 and 1936. Although the INS memo records the year of his birth as 1934, Obama’s family members and other records indicate that he was probably born in 1936.

When he married Dunham in February 1961, school administrators began to probe his status in earnest. Sumi McCabe, then UH’s foreign student adviser, first brought attention to the matter during a phone call to Dahling, the INS administrator, the following April. According to Dahling’s memo, “Mrs. McCabe further states that [Obama] has been running around with several girls since he first arrived here and last summer she cautioned him about his playboy ways. [Obama] replied that he would ‘try’ to stay away from the girls.’’ But he didn’t try very hard. Instead, he began dating the dark-eyed Ann Dunham.

Now that he was married to a US citizen and was soon to become the father of an American child, immigration officials would not have been reassured by his official records. On some of the forms in his alien file, Obama reported that he had a Kenyan wife. After he married Dunham, he sometimes reported her as his wife. More often than not, he left the section blank.

All the while, he wrote letters to his family and friends back home in Kenya, inquiring about his wife and children there.

Noting that Obama appeared to have a wife in Kenya and another in Hawaii, Dahling raised the possibility in his memo of charging Obama with polygamy or bigamy in order to get a deportation order against him. In the end, he suggested they keep an eye on him.

“Recommend that Subject be closely questioned before another extension is granted - and denial be considered,’’ Dahling concluded. “If his USC wife tries to petition for him, make sure an investigation is conducted as to the bona fide of the marriage.’’

As it turned out, the matter soon moved out of Honolulu administrators’ purview. The following year, Obama left his small family in Honolulu and headed to Harvard University to pursue a doctorate in economics. While in Cambridge, Obama would not only meet his third wife, but the question of how many wives he had would spiral into a confrontation with devastating consequences.

Sally Jacobs is a Boston Globe reporter. Her book, “The Other Barack, The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama’s Father,’’ will be released next week.

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