Lena Horne (And a Classic American Family)

The iconic American entertainer Lena Horne passed away on Sunday at age 92.

In a way, Horne’s bio was a precis of 20th-century American history. She lives forever in the mind’s eye as the beautiful, sultry  singer of “Stormy Weather,” but she also became a pioneering NAACP member at the age of two, signed up by her redoubtable grandmother Cora Calhoun Horne.  Her family was firmly rooted in an influential circle of well-to-do Brooklyn intellectuals, businesspeople and activists. Family friends included W.E.B. Dubois, Walter White and Paul Robeson. For much of her life, Horne carried the burden (and the torch) of being a standard-bearer in an age of change and turbulence for black Americans.

Lena Horne, described as one of the NAACP's "youngest members," as pictured in a 1919 edition of the Branch Bulletin. From "The Hornes: An American Family."

One of my favorite family history memoirs was written in 1986 by Horne’s daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley. Its title, The Hornes: An American Family, pretty much says it all. Lena’s grandfather, Edwin Horne, was the “son of the only-in-America union of an English adventurer and a Tennessee woodlands Native American,” as Buckley notes. His wife, Cora Calhoun, was born at the dawn of Reconstruction, the daughter of a slave owned by a nephew of John C. Calhoun (Andrew Jackson’s vice president and quintessential defender of slavery).

Edwin was one of those energetic people who seem incapable of not excelling at something — teaching, politics, newspaper publishing, owning a prosperous drugstore, becoming a high-level New York City Fire Department inspector. Cora was an early feminist, a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women as well as an early supporter of the NAACP. In Brooklyn they raised their family in a world of comfortable brownstones, “Smart Set” garden parties and debutante balls, but above all in an atmosphere of high standards and high achievement.

After her parents’ divorce, little Lena Horne was put in the care of grandmother Cora, who laid down the expectations in no uncertain terms: “When I take you to meetings, I want you to listen,” Cora would say. “When you speak, articulate clearly — don’t use slang … Don’t hunch your shoulders. Always look at the person you’re talking to.” Cora Calhoun Horne doesn’t sound like the sort to be overawed at having  a granddaughter in the entertainment business, but it stood to reason that in becoming an entertainer, Lena Horne would become the best. It was in the genes.

Buckley’s book was out of print for a while, then reissued in 2002. It’s well worth a read, not only for admirers of Lena Horne and her artistry, but for anyone interested in the history of a fascinating American family.


Link edition (short version!) 5.03.10

Inquest at the OK Corral: Loved this news item about the long-lost coroner’s inquest of the shootout at the OK Corral. Court clerks came across it while organizing old files at a jail storage room 20 miles away from Tombstone, AZ, site of the legendary gunfight. Apparently the contents of the inquest have long been known, so it is not likely that any surprises will surface — Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday can rest easy, wherever they are. To find the original documents, though — how exciting is that? Talk about a great spring cleaning story.

If you can’t say something nice … : The U.S. edition of Who Do You Think You Are has begun airing in Australia, and this review is generally quite positive. Unfortunately, the writer feels compelled to lead by saying: “There is nothing more boring than being stuck at a dinner party with someone who is researching their family genealogy … ” Well, as a matter of fact, there is: Being stuck at a dinner party with someone who can’t shut up about how boring they think genealogy is.

Blog note: Links are short this week (mini links? cocktail links?) owing to a busy Ancestral weekend. The Archaeologist was spinning her wheels in the annual 5 Boro Bike Tour in New York City. Riding in a pack of 30,000-odd cyclists is certainly An Experience. Three highlights: (1) Getting a cyclist’s-eye view of the Brooklyn waterfront neighborhoods where some of my ancestors lived and worked; (2) Gliding along major expressways and having the run of the joint; (3) The sea breeze adding a welcome jolt of energy as we rode the final stretch over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.

Enjoy your week!


Follow Friday: The Brooklyn Information Page

Are you researching ancestors in Brooklyn, NY? You must have visited The Brooklyn Information Page. If not, click on the link right now. I will wait.

And wait. And wait.

Oh, just come back tomorrow, already. This Brooklyn-centric genealogy page is crammed with stuff, and if you’re a first-time visitor, you’ll probably root around in it for hours, just as I did when I first discovered it — gosh, can it be eleven years ago now? Hard to believe.

The Brooklyn Page was created in 1997 by Nancy Lutz, and continues to be a font of information on all things Brooklyn. It is also a gateway to the NYBrooklyn-L email list, which I might as well warn you will flood torrents of information into your email box, but is always interesting as all get-out. I get it in digest form. I have mostly lurked there, and have learned all sorts of things from the unfailingly patient regulars.  There is no such thing as a dumb question there, trust me. To get an idea, you can browse the archives here.

Back to the Brooklyn Page itself: Brooklyn is a pretty complicated topic. To say your ancestors “came from Brooklyn” may be of  limited usefulness, depending upon the time frame. The entity called “Brooklyn” was once a whole bunch of separate settlements, each with its own rich history. (This helps to explain the fierce neighborhood partisanship  that reigns in Brooklyn to this day.) Here you can find information on old Brooklyn town names, farmlands and street names, so important in narrowing the search for an elusive relative. You can also find information on which churches were located where — also very important in a place where Roman Catholics tend to use parish names as geographic signposts.

One of the nicest things on The Brooklyn Page is Paper Trails, where Nancy has established a home for something everyone has sooner or later — a vital record that doesn’t fit anywhere in the lines they’re researching. On Paper Trails, these orphan records are available for browsing, perhaps to be discovered by someone else who can make use of them.

There are also lots and lots of transcriptions: obituaries, police-blotter stories and directory pages, to name just some.

The Brooklyn Page is searchable, which is how I discovered the identity of my great-great-uncle William Haigney’s wife, Sarah, as well as some of Sarah’s large Dowd clan from Brooklyn. It was also the place where I first discovered the maiden name of my great-uncle Joseph’s wife, Catherine Reilly Haigney.

Consider this a very belated valentine to Nancy and all the Brooklyn list regulars, whose insights, humor and wisdom continue to make my day every day.


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