Born Into Battle

By Denise Nicholas,
author of the novel "Freshwater Road"
Wednesday, July 23, 2008


A Memoir of Four Generations of One Extraordinary African-American Family

By Sheryll Cashin

PublicAffairs. 268 pp. $26

Books of family lore -- part oral history, part anecdote with loads of juicy tidbits from diaries and journals, engaging old photographs, newspaper quotes and entries from the public record -- serve to put meat on the bones of history. In the smoothly written "The Agitator's Daughter," Sheryll Cashin, a law professor at Georgetown University, adds her firsthand experiences as a participant and witness to civil rights history to enliven the text with a close and often heartbreaking point of view.

Cashin's induction into her family's rich history came from her father, one of the prime movers and shakers in a family full of them. "A confident man tends to talk about himself, and Daddy is more confident than most. His confidence was my good fortune, though," she writes. "In talking he shared, and that was how I learned the family lore."

Cashin traces the thread of political activism from her great-grandfather Herschel, born in 1854, through four generations, and gives readers a glimpse into the intimate, social and political lives of people who lived through the darkest days and the grandest moments of triumph that black folks have experienced in this country.

For the African American Cashins, the story began in Georgia, where a free woman of color (or possibly a slave) named Lucinda Bowdre and an Irishman, John Cashin Jr., brought seven children into the world. Lucinda took their children from Augusta to Philadelphia as the Civil War drew near. John Cashin Jr. died before the war.

In 1864, the author's great-grandfather, Herschel Vivian Cashin, mulatto son of Lucinda and John, attended the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia and met the role model for his life, teacher Octavius V. Catto. According to Cashin, "Catto expounded a personal philosophy that he must have inculcated in his young charges: 'It is the duty of every man, to the extent of his interest and means to provide for the immediate improvement of the four or five millions of ignorant and previously dependent laborers who will be thrown upon society by the reorganization of the Union.' "

In 1870, at age 16, Herschel headed south, first to Georgia and then to Montgomery, Ala., to uplift the race and insert himself into the new political landscape of the slavery-free South, where the party of Lincoln, the Republicans, sought to gain power and where the number of black potential voters was promising to a man with political ambition.

Over the years, Herschel and his wife, Minnie, raised six children -- one of whom was John Logan Cashin Sr., a dentist and the author's grandfather -- while working tirelessly for the political rights of black folks. Herschel became a lawyer, ran for state legislative office in Alabama in 1874 and won even as the violent tear-down of Reconstruction spread through the South. Sadly, it would take another century to fulfill his dreams of full voting rights for black people.

Cashin's father, John Logan Cashin Jr., inherited Herschel's commitment to activism. The entire family, children included, was called to work for the causes of voting rights, poverty and educational advancement for black folks. They all participated in the Mule Train, the last wish of Martin Luther King Jr. and his Poor People's Campaign, which brought "caravans of poor blacks, whites, Native Americans, and Mexican Americans from their isolated corners to . . . the national mall." A photograph of the author and her mother sitting on a covered wagon for the slow ride to Washington clearly shows their commitment. But although John vigorously followed in Herschel's footsteps and gave all that he had to the cause -- becoming not only a successful dentist but also an astute political operative who founded the National Democratic Party of Alabama -- it is Herschel's fearless journey, in times when the only light burning was fire on a cross, and those who stood up were shot down in massive numbers, when black leaders were terrorized as examples to the rest, that haunts the pages of this important family saga.

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