'The Black Calhouns': five generations of life in an African American family

Historian Gail Lumet Buckley's new book is a cross between history and memoir, examining the African American experience through the lives of a single family.

The Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights with One African American Family By Gail Lumet Buckley Atlantic Monthly Press 353 pp.

In June of 1871, a small group of African American students in Georgia took three days of grueling examinations in Greek, Latin, algebra, and geometry. Joseph E. Brown, Georgia’s governor during the Civil War, was convinced the students would fail. “They are an inferior race, and for that reason, we had a right to hold them as slaves, and I mean to attend these examinations to prove we are right.”

The students knew that the tests were about much more than academics. Asked later why she was nervous, a young girl said: “I was not on examination, nor our class, nor our school; my race was on examination before these Visitors...” The students didn’t just pass, they performed brilliantly, shocking their examiners by proving theorems, solving problems, and sight-translating complex passages of Greek and Latin into English. Ex-Governor Brown admitted that he had been badly mistaken: “The exercises of the two preceding days has dispelled the opinion, heretofore entertained, that the members of the African race were incapable of the high degree of mental culture. I was all wrong.”

This episode was excavated from records and archives by the historian Gail Lumet Buckley, a direct descendant of some of those students examined in Atlanta, Georgia. It appears in her powerful new book, The Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights with One African American Family. A hybrid of history and memoir, the book is at once a study of America’s slow and only partial eradication of racism and violence towards African Americans since the Civil War and a rich chronicle of five generations of life in a single family – the author’s own.

Her story begins in 1865 with the emancipation of Moses Calhoun, a man in his mid-30s who was previously owned by Dr. Andrew Bonaparte Calhoun. Dr. Calhoun was a relative of John C. Calhoun, the seventh vice president of the United States and a passionate defender of slavery. Compared to many other slaves, Moses was fortunate. Of the roughly 462,000 slaves in Georgia at the start of the Civil War, only around 5,000 were literate. Moses was among the literate few, probably due to his owner’s social status, and he secretly taught his mother and sister to read and write.

By 1870 Moses owned several small businesses in Atlanta and was able to vote. His children studied at some of the new educational institutions open to African Americans, the so-called Missionary schools founded by Northern philanthropists such as Asa Ware. Buckley argues that for urban and literate African Americans, the Reconstruction years between 1865 in 1876 were far better than the Jim Crow era that followed them. While hardly idyllic, of course, Reconstruction saw at least some enforcement by federal troops of the constitutional guarantees in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments.

After Rutherford B. Hayes agreed to remove federal troops from the former Confederate states in 1876, southern racists were essentially free to kill, exploit, and abuse African Americans without fear of punishment. “The North won the Civil War – but as far as blacks were concerned the South won the Peace,” Buckley writes.

In the generation after Moses Calhoun, some members of the family moved north to New York City, settling first in Brooklyn and later Harlem. Buckley’s narrative toggles between the northern and southern branches of the black Calhouns, which creates telling contrasts between those who stayed in Atlanta and those who left. Education was a central priority of both branches of the family, but those in the South tended to have longer and happier marriages, while their cousins in the North enjoyed more professional and social opportunities.

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. In his autobiography, Malcolm X. raged that his middle school American history textbook contained only a single paragraph on African Americans. Buckley’s moving chronicle, like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s "Between the World and Me," should be read in schools across the country.

Buckley’s ancestors had a way of befriending or becoming some of the major figures in American history. W. E. B. Du Bois was smitten by her great-grandmother as a teenager; Langston Hughes was a friend of another relative, an ophthalmologist in Harlem who wrote poems by night; Buckley’s mother, Lena Horne, was a movie star, singer, and in 1943 the highest earning African-American entertainer in America. Horne moved among a dazzling set of mid-20th century cultural figures – Frank Sinatra, Robert Kennedy, Paul Robeson, Cole Porter, James Baldwin, and dozens more.

Horne’s success, however, offered only partial insulation from racism. Her roles were often edited out of films before they were shown in the South, where casting an African-American actors as something other than a maid was unthinkable. Her lighter skin was both too black for some white directors and insufficiently black for others who wanted a conspicuous token character. She also endured casual insults in public places – being refused service, being called the N-word – for much of her life.

Buckley's sweeping narrative contains many necessary reminders of America’s shameful history of racism. But it also offers evidence that gives cause for some modest optimism – moral progress across the generations has been slow but real. When the author was a girl, she sometimes accompanied her mother on various trips for performances around the country. One day Gail was swimming in the pool at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, where Lena was singing that night. A female patron burst into the manager’s office and explained with horror that there was a black person in the swimming pool. She threatened to check out immediately if Gail was not removed from the pool. The manager’s answer was perfect: “Ma’am, may I carry your bags now?”

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