READ EXCERPT: 'Stormy Weather'

Certain parts of their lineage went unmentioned, too—especially by Cora, whose café au lait skin, thin lips, and delicate nose betrayed generations of intermingling with whites. Her maiden name, Calhoun, came from her father's and grandmother's slave master in Georgia, Dr. Andrew Bonaparte Calhoun. His uncle, Senator John C. Calhoun, had championed slavery as God's will—another unvoiced source of shame among the Hornes.

But Cora had revered Moses, her mulatto father. After decades as a house slave, he'd become a top Atlanta business owner and had married a white woman. Cora and her sister, Lena, had more white blood than black; this along with their father's means brought them great privilege. As young women they lived like debutantes, earning university degrees at a time when few women of any race did. In 1887, when she was twenty-two, Cora took her own white husband, Edwin Horn (he added the e later). Lena married Frank Smith, a mixed-blood, light-skinned doctor.

Once settled in Brooklyn, Edwin and Cora focused on raising their sons. But according to Gail Lumet Buckley, child rearing bored Cora. Once the boys were old enough to fend for themselves, she began working for a dizzying array of community causes. They included the Urban League, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), and the NAACP, formed in 1909 in response to the growing scourge of anti-Negro brutality. Cora lectured hookie-playing black youths on how they were jeopardizing their futures and shaming their race. She led demonstrations to demand voting rights for black women. She aided unwed Negro mothers, and fought to get scholarships for worthy young blacks—one of whom, Paul Robeson, entered Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, due partly to Cora's efforts.

Her bedrock strength left little room for warmth. Lena Horne recalled her as a "violent, militant little lady" who never caressed her or uttered a loving word. To Cora, sentimentality meant weakness. Having come from a line of women who cooked the white man's meals and washed his clothes, she wouldn't stoop to anything that evoked servitude. She left such tasks to her husband. The ironies were many: A white man (albeit one in hiding) did housework for his (partly) Negro wife, who wore the pants in the family—and who detested whites.

Edwin had already fallen a rung in society. He'd lost his job as a teacher to a less experienced white man; now he worked as an inspector for the fire department. He sought comfort in life's finer things. At home in his parlor, he relished his sweet-smelling Havana cigars while listening to Caruso on the Victrola. He applauded the great tenor at the Metropolitan Opera. Edwin's looks held their own distinction; Lena would recall his gray mustache and hair and his "beautiful, sad blue eyes." Even as a child, she understood her grandfather's loneliness.

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...