Cover image of "The Black Calhouns," a book about the African-American experience

Gail Lumet Buckley’s The Black Calhouns isn’t easy to pigeonhole. Part Black history, part genealogy, and part memoir, the connecting tissue in the book is the story of the author’s extraordinary family. But, in a larger sense, it’s a survey of the African-American experience.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Born into slavery, the Calhouns quickly moved into the middle class during Reconstruction and took on leading roles in the Black elite as business owners, teachers,  physicians, and attorneys. In the early years of the twentieth century, one branch of the family emigrated to the North along with hundreds of thousands of other African-Americans seeking a better life than could be had in the Jim Crow South. Buckley traces the history of this fascinating family, then focuses on its most famous member, the superstar singer Lena Horne, Buckley’s mother. In the book’s closing chapters, the perspective shifts from Horne to the author herself. The result is an impressionistic picture of the Black experience in America as lived by some of those who were most successful despite the ever-present weight of racism.

The Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights with One African American Family by Gail Lumet Buckley (2016) 336 pages ★★★☆☆

Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the legacy of racism

Nested into the continuing saga of one family in The Black Calhouns is a powerful account of how racism has infected American society for four centuries, spanning the years of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the civil rights era. For two centuries Buckley’s family has been an integral part of this story, rising from slavery through the middle class to America’s privileged elite. Her perspective shifts from the elegant homes of her family’s owner — a relative of slavery’s outspoken advocate, Senator John C. Calhoun — to the comfortable, middle-class homes her family built in Atlanta, Birmingham, Manhattan, and Brooklyn, to the showcase houses of Hollywood’s upper crust. This is an amazing success story — the quintessential American story.

The African-American experience viewed through a series of snapshots

If you’re unfamiliar with Black history, The Black Calhouns will be eye-opening. You’ll learn here about the origins of the predominantly Black colleges and their role in nurturing the civil rights movement . . . the horrific prevalence of lynching in the Jim Crow South from the 1870s to the 1960s . . . the outsized role of Atlanta and Harlem in African-American history . . . nineteenth-century Irish-Black hatred and the race riots it engendered . . . the merciless racism that pervaded the armed forces before the Vietnam War . . . the shift of Black allegiance from the Republican Party of the 1860s to the Democratic Party a century later . . . the role that America’s Jim Crow laws played as a model for Hitler’s Nuremberg race laws and South African apartheid . . . and a whole lot more. No student of American history can be regarded as educated without an understanding of all these factors. No American voter should be ignorant of them, either.

About the author

Gail Lumet Buckley is the daughter of superstar singer and actress Lena Horne, Hollywood’s first African-American star, and ex-wife of the award-winning Hollywood movie and television director Sidney Lumet. Harvard educated, she had a successful career in journalism before marrying Lumet and falling into the role of “the director’s wife.” She is the author of two books based on her family’s history.

For more reading

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