The Black Calhounsby Gail Buckley
Gail Lumet Buckley tells the story of her dynamic family during the most crucial century in African American history.
In The Black Calhouns, Gail Lumet Buckley–daughter of actress Lena Horne–delves deep into her family history, detailing the experiences of an extraordinary African American family from Civil War to Civil Rights.Beginning with her great-great grandfather Moses Calhoun, a house slave who used the rare advantage of his education to become a successful businessman in postwar Atlanta, Buckley follows her family’s two branches: one that stayed in the South, and the other that settled in Brooklyn. Through the lens of her relatives’ momentous lives, Buckley examines major events throughout American history. From Atlanta during Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow, from the two World Wars to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance and then the Civil Rights Movement, this ambitious, brilliant family witnessed and participated in the most crucial events of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Combining personal and national history, The Black Calhouns is a vibrant portrait of six generations during dynamic times of struggle and triumph.
“[A] panoramic view of American society . . . Written in the style of a sweeping historical novel . . . This is history from the inside . . . Buckley charts the generational branches of black Calhouns painstakingly, as though making up for the lost stories of so many other African-Americans left on the cutting room floor. There is an insistence in her meticulously detailed recollections: We were here! We were there! Do not forget!” —New York Times Book Review
“A history cum memoir by Lena Horne’s daughter tells the story of her forebears—’Six generations of an atypical African American family that is also typically American.’ The story begins with the life of Horne’s great-grandfather, a Georgia house slave named Moses, and ends with the author’s own experiences at mid-century, encompassing along the way Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the growth and splitting of the Calhoun clan: one branch stays in Georgia, the other moves to New York. Placing the story against a backdrop of historical shifts eloquently conveys . . . how politics and prejudice can shape a family.” —New Yorker
“Gail Lumet Buckley’s family portrait reminds us how personal African American history still is. From Reconstruction and the triumph of Jim Crow in the South to World War II and the beginnings of mass political activism for equality–Buckley relates black survival and progress through the experiences of her ambitious, complicated family.” —Darryl Pinckney, author of High Cotton and Blackballed: The Black Vote and U.S. Democracy
“[An] assiduously researched and gracefully written family history . . . entrancingly well-told . . . Buckley’s superbly realized American family portrait is enthralling and resounding.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
“The story of Buckley’s ancestors is fascinating for many reasons. Her candid portraits of their experiences offer a window onto shameful episodes in American history that are more recent and relevant than many realize. The stories also represent at least a proxy for the untold stories of so many others whose lives have been conveniently forgotten, excised from national consciousness . . . Buckley’s moving chronicle, like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, should be read in schools across the country.” —Christian Science Monitor
“Deeply personal and historically significant.” —David Levering Lewis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of King: A Biography and W. E. B. Du Bois, 1919-1963: The Fight for Equality and the American Century
“Strong men wept when Lena Horne, Gail Lumet Buckley’s legendary mother, gave the crowd ‘Stormy Weather.’ Reading this clear-eyed, bright-hearted family epic, you’re liable to shed tears of your own, for the story of Gail and Lena and the black Calhouns is the story of our nation.” —Benjamin Taylor, author of Naples Declared and editor of There Is Simply Too Much to Think About: Collected Nonfiction of Saul Bellow
By 1876, Reconstruction in the South was politically dead—although its spirit certainly survived everywhere. But the letter of Reconstruction was dead. It was a terrible turning point. There would be no more Union soldiers in the South to protect former slaves; there would be no more effective Republicans in the South, black or white; and there would be no more black freedom. Moses thrived, however, amassing property because his interests were economic not political. By 1876, Moses Calhoun was as successful as any black man in Atlanta could hope to be. The post-war migration of Georgia blacks to Kansas and points west and north had caused some alarm among whites. Moses might have felt “good riddance.” Like many upper servants, he probably had conservative views. The best people, he might believe, stayed to rebuild Atlanta, which soon became as brash and money-grasping as it was before the war, with Democrats back in charge. Moses was no political activist. He was a Republican, but he knew how to get along with Democrats.
Moses’s particular pursuit of happiness throughout the 1870s meant expanding his business; becoming a pillar of the black community; and organizing parties for his daughters and their friends. There were other black churches in Atlanta, but Moses naturally joined First Congregational [an integrated, progressive church]—not only a house of God, but a doorway to the future.