"I came from what was called one of the First Families of Brooklyn," Horne explained. They shunned discussing the slave ancestry that had spawned them all—"yet it was the rape of slave women by their masters which accounted for our white blood, which, in turn, made us Negro 'society.'" Home was an immaculate four-story brownstone in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant section. An iron fence with sharp black spikes protected 189 Chauncey Street on three sides. That barrier told passersby to keep their distance; and for Lena's grandmother Cora, the lady of the house, it shut out the neighborhood's seamier elements—the poor Irish in tenements across the street, the Swedes who ran a garage a few doors down.
Cora and her husband, Edwin, had lived on Chauncey Street since 1896. That year they joined a northward migration of approximately forty thousand blacks who fled the growing horrors of southern life. Post–Civil War Reconstruction had collapsed, toppled by white supremacists. Negroes had lost most of the rights they'd gained, and segregation was flaring. Hundreds of lynchings had occurred—each a symbolic warning of what might happen to Negroes who stepped out of line, or even to those who didn't. In contrast, the northern cities—New York, Chicago, Detroit—seemed like oases of safety and opportunity.
A small percentage of the newly settled black families were considered special. This was the "black bourgeoisie," a prosperous middle class of teachers, doctors, businessmen, and others of education and grooming. They or their elders had descended from "favored slaves"—privileged blacks who, by virtue of their brains or their sexual allure to their masters, had worked in the house, not in the field. During the decadelong heyday of Reconstruction, they'd used their cachet to start businesses and gain social standing. Now, in the North, they were helping pave the way for a new Negro image—one that challenged every cliché of black women as household help, black men as shiftless loafers. The Negro aristocracy tended to shun anyone who embodied a past they wanted to bury. "Uppity" became a popular word to describe ambitious blacks.
Respectability was their gospel, and they upheld it at all costs. Actress Jane White, whose father, Walter White, became the executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1931, recalled the code of behavior dictated by the black bourgeoisie. "You didn't laugh too loud," she said. "You didn't go out in messy clothes, you were always polished and ironed; you learned how to speak well, and with a modulated voice. It was a tight cage you were in."
The Whites lived at 409 Edgecombe Avenue, the most prestigious address in Harlem. At fourteen stories, it towered above the rest of Sugar Hill, a gold-ring neighborhood for the Negro elite. Residents through the years included NAACP cofounder and preeminent activist W.E.B. Du Bois; Jimmie Lunceford, one of Harlem's star bandleaders; and Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who worked for the NAACP before becoming the Supreme Court's first black justice. In the 1940s, Marshall often dropped by the White apartment for poker nights. "There would be hootin' and hollerin' and drinkin'," said Jane, "and they would let their hair down, and Thurgood talked one way amongst them. When he argued in court he talked another way. One may laugh, but it's rather sad." In public, she said, "you couldn't be what you were."