The Caldwells: A Family's Long Civil Rights Journey

The Caldwell family reflects on how life has changed for their family from slavery to the election of America's first black president. Video by Whitney Shefte/
By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

As the great and sometimes heartbreaking flow of events swept around the contours of this city, the Caldwells set themselves into the portrait album of America. Figures pressed between the pages of history.

One black American family: A mother and a father. Four daughters and a son. Forebears who reach back to slavery, and grandchildren who can now grow up with the knowledge that they could be president.

At times, blood and fire marred their city. On other days, the monuments of downtown Washington seemed to sway with the throngs who were marching yet again.

The Caldwells remembered their dead. And they honored the history their family had lived.

A black-and-white photograph of Emily Nolan, who had been a slave in Alexandria, sits inside a picture frame in the Caldwell family home in Fort Washington. She sat for the portrait with other family members in the early 1930s. By then she was an old woman with aches and failing eyesight. President Lincoln had freed her, the first 29 years of her long, sad life having been spent on the dark side of a nightmare before Emancipation.

In the picture she is unsmiling, a simple shawl around her shoulders, hands that once worked in the fields now resting in her lap. Even in this photo, taken in the latter years of her life -- cold air seeping into her bones in a drafty Harlem home -- it looks as if Emily Nolan was trying to ward off things. The world was harder then, and optimism more difficult to come by.

Twenty-five years later, her great-grandson Roland Caldwell and his wife, Audrey, would step onto the pavement outside their new apartment in Northeast and sense the breeze of possibility. Something special was taking place. Civil rights laws were being written, pioneers were testing the frontier of social justice. Maybe a smile wouldn't feel out of place.

It was a time of martyrdom, too. A time when dreamers dreamed and sometimes fell. A time when great speeches were given, sometimes within just a few feet of a Caldwell family member.

The 1963 March on Washington: A Caldwell was there.

Those fiery 1968 riots, which had the White House on edge: The Caldwells were there.

The rallies for home rule: A Caldwell was there.

Anti-apartheid rallies outside the gates of the White House. The Million Man March on the Mall. Caldwells were there, too.

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