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.
x And on that preternatural night in Chicago, when a man glided into view -- the sky and the world as his backdrop -- standing as the first black man to be elected president of the United States, a Caldwell was there.x
Like so many other black Americans, the Caldwells saw these events not as topics for elementary school book reports, but as intimate pieces of their own family history.
"I remember my father always putting us kids in the car and schlepping us to this or that rally," says Roland's oldest daughter, Theresa. "Dad told us about Emily."
"She had so far to come, just to get to us in Harlem," says Dorothy Miller, the great-granddaughter of Emily Nolan and the only surviving family member to have laid eyes on her. "She couldn't even conceive of the word 'vote,' let alone the concept of a black president."Heaven on 125th Street
Like so many stories out of the album of black America, the Caldwell saga begins in the South.
x Roland's father, William Grant Caldwell, was born in North Carolina in 1900. He got a job clearing trees in the early 1920s. There were white overseers, men known as "straw bosses." A wooden table would be set up in the woods on payday, and workers formed a line at the appointed hour to receive their money. They were tired men, and eager to get their pay. "He told me he was working in those woods when payday came one day," says Roland. "He went up to the table. He was standing there with his hat on. He said that this white straw boss punched him in the back and said, 'Don't talk to no white man with your hat on!' Well, Dad picked up a shovel and hit him. . . . He took off running."x
William Caldwell fled through the woods, a posse on his heels. But his escape was successful, and he wound up on a train to Washington. He did odd handyman jobs and found a place to stay among the lean-tos in the city's alleys. "My father would say to me, 'Roland, do you know where Goat Alley in D.C. is?' " says Caldwell.
William Caldwell suffered money woes in Washington, and within a few years he relocated to New Haven, Conn., where he found factory work. When he lost his factory job, he became a short-order cook. Roland -- one of six children -- was born in 1932. The Depression forced William into the bread lines. The Caldwell children grew up poor. They wore hand-me-down clothing and shoes. William could sit for hours, quiet, a mystery to his own children. He had no words to explain to them his lot in life. "My father was strange," Roland says. "He stood away from his children. He hardly ever talked."
x Roland's cousins were always talking about this mythical place you could reach by train. A bopping teenager could leave New Haven in the afternoon and get back to New Haven before the night grew too deep and the parents started to worry. The place was Harlem. "And I practically grew up in Harlem," Roland says.x
To hear the poets tell it, there was no place like Harlem in the 1920s, '30s and '40s. To writer Arna Bontemps, "it was like a foretaste of paradise."
The Harlem literary movement took off with publication of "The New Negro" in 1925, an anthology edited by Alain Locke. Locke, who would teach for a while at Howard University, was a Harvard grad and the first black Rhodes scholar. The Harlem Renaissance soon was in full flower, including figures such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Bontemps and Zora Neale Hurston. But there was more than literature. There was dancing at the Savoy and wicked entertainment at the Apollo Theater, where both Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald sang.
"I went to Club Harlem, the Apollo, all the places," Roland says. "You'd catch the train in New Haven and just go."
It was during his time in New York City that he first got a whiff of money, the kind of money that could give hope to a family's dreams of something better. George Harris, Roland's cousin, had been a child star with a vaudeville act known as the Gold Dust Twins. With his savings, he opened a restaurant in New Rochelle called the Harris Tea Room.
The combination of the fun of Harlem and his cousin's financial success gave Caldwell a sense of possibility. War movies and stories about gallant soldiers showed him a path to make his own way out of poverty.
Even though black soldiers served in segregated units and often suffered abuse at the hands of insensitive white officers, the U.S. military provided many black enlistees with an opportunity to partake more fully in the American dream. And then President Harry Truman desegregated the military in 1948.
Four years after Truman's order -- which provided a massive psychological boost to American blacks even though schools and other aspects of American life remained segregated -- Caldwell joined the Air Force and was briefly based at Fort Meade in Maryland.
After basic training, Caldwell was transferred to Mississippi for additional training. He found life on the base fine. Off the base it was scary. "You felt so impotent in Mississippi as a black person," he says. "You couldn't be a man in Mississippi."
But overall, the military had cut into territory that society at large had yet to do. "Integration in the military forced America to have to look at somebody as that person -- a sergeant, a captain, not a black sergeant, a black captain -- and it also gave excuses to good white people who were weak when deciding to do what is right. I had this sergeant, Ray Spiegel. We were sitting and talking one day and he said, 'You know something, I never met a colored person like you.' He was from Georgia. Now, I wasn't his boss and he wasn't mine. We just worked side by side. He finally realized that there were a lot of smart folk around here and the color of their skin had nothing to do with it."
Caldwell was happily back at Fort Meade by 1953. When the black soldiers and airmen had time off, they would often visit the nurses at a segregated hospital in nearby Crownsville. It was called the Hospital for the Negro Insane of Maryland. And amid the sorrowful souls of that institution, Caldwell met a young woman named Audrey Simms. He was smitten. And he kept going back to the hospital. "Not as a patient, mind you," he allows.A Change Is Gonna Come
Simms was born Aug. 30, 1936, in Adelina, Md., a rural area 10 miles outside Annapolis. Her mother, Stacey, and father, John, were sharecroppers, living on farmland owned by a local white family. Audrey's grandmother Essie lived full time as a cleaning woman with a white family in the area. In 1947, with sharecropping a brutal business and seeing no future for his four children, John Simms moved his family into Annapolis. "My father decided the kids needed better educations," Audrey says.
A neighbor there suffered epileptic seizures, which Audrey saw up close. "I didn't understand what was going on at the time," she says of the neighbor's illness. "And I was inspired to learn more."
She decided to become a nurse. And the hospital in Crownsville had a training program for high school graduates interested in nursing.
Care for the Negro mentally ill of Maryland had been fraught with problems for a long time. There were only two hospitals that treated Negroes -- one in Frederick and Spring Grove, near Baltimore -- at the turn of the century, and the conditions at both shocked legislators. In its annual report of 1900, the Maryland State Lunacy Commission concluded: "The condition of the Negro insane at Montevue Hospital at Frederick is shameful and should at once be remedied. The beasts of the field are better cared for than the poor Negroes at Montevue."
Crownsville opened in 1911, but for years, the hospital refused to hire blacks to work on staff. Pressured by the NAACP, it began hiring blacks in 1948, six years before Simms arrived to begin her training.
"There was for so long a feeling of no justice," says Audrey Caldwell of the 1940s and 1950s.
She remembers sitting in her starched whites with a group of other nurses on graduation day. She had escaped life on a farm.
x "You had some good days working there and some bad days," she recalls about Crownsville. "Of course you had to deal with unsanitary conditions sometimes."x
She also had to deal with those servicemen from Fort Meade who were trying to cadge phone numbers. They'd invite the women to service club dances, sometimes even sending a bus to pick them up. At the dances, where the big band music played, the soldiers would put on their smooth moves. The next goal would be to get them to go into Washington, to one of the nightclubs down on U Street.
x Simms found it hard to resist Roland Caldwell. He was always talking tenderly about his mother and sister. She thought he had class. "He was different from most guys," she says. "He always opened the door, was very polite."x
On Christmas Eve of 1957, in his Washington apartment, Roland Caldwell asked Audrey Simms to marry him. "I figured this out economically," he says, recalling the moment. "I could claim the ring as my Christmas present."
Audrey and Roland cackle over the memory: about being young and broke and in love.
They married April 12, 1958, at St. Martin's Church on North Capitol Street and settled in an apartment at Mayfair Mansions on Hayes Street NE.
Roland worked as an intelligence analyst with the Defense Department. When Audrey became pregnant with their first child, she left Crownsville. "You couldn't work at the state hospital in those days if you were pregnant," she says."
Theresa was born in 1958, Roland Jr. in 1960 and Patricia in 1962.
The Caldwells were members of Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church on Ely Place SE. "Where I was born, in New Haven, we lived in an integrated neighborhood," Roland Caldwell says. "Washington was segregated. It was a Jim Crow place."
In fact, when Roland told his father he was going to D.C., William Caldwell remembered his own time in the city. "He said, 'Now you act like the other colored folk down there.' He was trying to tell me I should stay in my place."
With other members of their church, the Caldwells worked on anti-poverty causes in the city. As the '60s rolled onto the calendar, the family would go on church retreats, where the talk increasingly turned to civil rights and the goings-on in the Deep South.
In 1961, Roland and Audrey couldn't help but notice that there was feverish activity at the bus terminal in downtown Washington. A contingent of black and white college students announced plans to board a bus and cross into the South. "One of the biggest things that made an impression upon me," says Roland Caldwell, "were the Freedom Rides."
In 1960, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in Boynton v. Virginia banning racial segregation in interstate public transportation. When word went out about the Freedom Riders, law enforcement officials in the South warned that riders would be risking lives by coming into their jurisdictions.
Nevertheless, in the spring of 1961 the first buses departed from downtown Washington. Mayhem soon followed. A bus was firebombed outside Anniston, Ala., in May. Riders were beaten and arrested. Photographers snapped pictures of their blood-splattered faces and they appeared on the front pages of newspapers. Protests of all kinds sprang up, and the names of previously little-known figures -- John Lewis, "Bull" Connor, Fred Shuttlesworth, Martin Luther King Jr. -- were suddenly mentioned in daily newspapers and being talked about on national radio and TV.
The blood didn't dim Roland and Audrey Caldwell's hopes. "Now, if you look back," he says, "a lot of things were terrible. But then I think of this: Black artists couldn't get opportunities -- but there was Marian Anderson."Climbing Those Many Steps
Washington's landmarks -- the Capitol, the White House, the Lincoln Memorial -- have long been points of pride. But they have also been destination points for the aggrieved. In 1939, classical singer Marian Anderson was denied the opportunity to sing at DAR Constitution Hall because of her color. The Daughters of the American Revolution operated the hall, and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt quit the organization because of the Anderson imbroglio. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes arranged for Anderson to sing outdoors, at the Lincoln Memorial. The concert drew more than 70,000 people.
On May 17, 1957, a group of ministers from around the country staged a Prayer Pilgrimage at the Lincoln Memorial to protest racial inequality. It was headlined by labor leader A. Philip Randolph, Clarence Mitchell of the NAACP, Martin Luther King Jr. and Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. There were an estimated 30,000 in attendance. "We are sick and tired of the two-party hypocrisy," Powell thundered from the podium. "Asia and Africa will never trust America, because they know we're ruled by a hypocritical bipartisan Jim Crow policy."
In the early months of 1963, when equal rights still seemed agonizingly distant, plans were made to hold yet another rally at the Lincoln Memorial. This one would be more massive than anything yet. It would pull from vast arenas of American life: politics, entertainment, religion. Anyone who cared about freedom, who was concerned about the racial killings in the South, would be invited.
Talk about the March on Washington buzzed through the Caldwells' neighborhood and at their church. At first they thought of taking the whole family. But the children were too young, and the parents thought better of it. They would get a babysitter, and go together. "But it was hard to find a babysitter," Audrey says.
So Roland would go and bring the story back to the family.
On the morning of Aug. 23, 1963, he rose, got dressed, kissed his wife and three small children goodbye, and caught a bus to the Mall. The weather was hot and his eyes were wide.
"I remember getting off the bus, and as we were walking down Independence Avenue it began to feel like a spiritual experience. I looked at all of these people -- white folk, black folk -- it was just a mass of us. I said to myself, 'I hope nothing bad happens.' "
He stared at Josephine Baker, the onetime vaudevillian who had left America and found fame as a chanteuse in Paris, up on the podium. "She was talking about we had arrived. Well, I didn't think we had arrived with one march, but I knew it was very important." He wanted to run home and grab Audrey and the children, but fretted over what he might miss. And then, when he heard Martin Luther King Jr. talking about the end of slavery, he couldn't move.
"The Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later . . . "
In the summer of 1963, Roland Caldwell's great-grandmother Emily had been in the ground just 27 years.
Amid the sea of people, Caldwell stood mesmerized. "I remember feeling like I was having an out-of-body experience. And then when it was over, I thought to myself that I should have something else to do. Someplace else to go."
"I watched the whole thing on TV," says Audrey Caldwell. "I thought it was really powerful. It gave you hope. It made you realize you had someone fighting for you."
Days after the march, Caldwell, dressed in a suit and tie, took his little daughter Theresa and son Roland Jr. to the Mall. They strolled the grounds and gazed at the Reflecting Pool. He pointed out the Lincoln Memorial. Caldwell wanted some of the opera of the just-passed event, some of the sonnets that had been in the air to come alive again and encircle his small children.
He wanted them to know their so-called place in this world: Upon the grass of America.Washington in Flames
By 1968, the Caldwells had four children (a fifth, Jiiko, would be born in 1972). Sia Mawanda Caldwell (now Milner) was born in 1964. Her middle name is African. "My mother and father were in their dashiki phase then," Sia says.
The Caldwells knew, as well as anyone, that America was at war -- in Vietnam and in cities like Cleveland, Detroit and Washington. College administrators struggled to handle student protests. New figures -- Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Eldridge Cleaver -- challenged those who advocated nonviolence in the civil rights movement. They assailed the NAACP and even King himself as being out of touch.
And then, on the night of April 4, a gunman shot the 39-year-old King dead as he stood on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Washington and many other urban communities across the country erupted. Inequality was suddenly met with destruction. Four days of violence engulfed the nation's capital. "White America has declared war on black people," Carmichael howled at a Washington press conference. "She did so when she stole the first black man from Africa."
Hundreds of stores were torched; smoke thickened the air above the city. There were 12 deaths and more than 6,000 arrests in Washington. President Lyndon Johnson called out the National Guard. At one point the rioters were within two blocks of the White House. Mayor-Commissioner Walter Washington initiated a 5:30 curfew.
On the day King was assassinated, Roland and Audrey had a house guest: William Caldwell, the onetime alley resident of Washington and Roland's father. Caught between the raw evidence of mayhem -- and his son's efforts to explain the violence in a historical context -- the elderly Caldwell sat bewildered. Then Roland came up with the idea -- his wife got nervous just listening to it -- of taking the whole family to H Street and the site of the fires. Roland Caldwell had the enthusiasm of a sociologist embarking on a field study. The elderly Caldwell, who had fled the Deep South, stared at the tableau from the moving automobile.
"I remember sitting next to Gramps," says Theresa Caldwell. "And the whole time he was as still as a board."
"I remember being transfixed by my father's conversation," says Roland Caldwell. "He began telling us why he had left North Carolina. And he had never talked to me about that incident before. And he talked about it with such emotion."
The children wondered why their father had piled them into the family car and cruised past the ruins. "I just thought they should see it," he says now.
"When we did the riot tour," says Theresa, "it just felt it was natural for our family to be in the car together. I remember Dad pointing at the burned stores and saying, 'That used to be such and such a place, and that used to be such and such a place.' I remember everything was such a mess."Marching Through the '70s
Those who devised congressional oversight for the District of Columbia saw it as a necessary element for maintaining security and safety in the nation's capital. (A powerful element of the decision can be traced to a vicious physical assault upon Congress in 1783 when that body was based in Philadelphia.) But Washington residents -- without the voting clout of those who live in Baltimore or Philadelphia or New York -- would come to see it as Southern white men in Congress depriving blacks of the right to make decisions about their own lives.
It was in the heady days of the 1960s when home rule began to pick up support. Roland was transferred to Colorado for three years and when the family returned in 1971, the issue was everywhere. Rhythm-and-blues acts would shout out encouragement to the residents of Chocolate City from venues such as the Lincoln Theatre. There were ads on local radio.
Sia remembers fondly the emotions behind the protests against a lack of home rule and Walter Washington's first run for mayor. "I remember there was a song on the radio," she is saying, sitting in her office at Beulah Baptist Church on Dix Street NE, where she is a pastor's assistant. "It went like, 'We are for Washington, for Washington, da da da da.' It was a nice little jingle."
Her sister Theresa recalls protesting in Ward 8. "I remember the clothes people wore. There were big Afros and platform shoes and bell-bottoms. And there'd be Walter Washington coming down the street in a convertible. Being out on the streets was just part of being here in D.C. and protesting," she says. "When you're in the 10th grade and there's always this hoopla protesting something, well, it's very exciting."
In 1973, Congress at long last enacted the District of Columbia Home Rule Act. It meant the city could finally elect its own mayor as well as a city council. But even in present-day Washington, there is frustration that Congress continues to wield power over the city's finances, and its judges and prosecutors are appointed by the president.
Theresa Caldwell recalls participating in anti-apartheid marches in the 1980s that went right up to the gates of the White House. "I remember marching behind Rev. Jackson and Dorothy Height in some protest. I looked at them and then looked up at the sky and said to myself, 'This is heaven.' I mean, marching with them!" Years later she would take a job in communications with Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition here in Washington, then went to work for his son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in 2000.
"I remember my sister Theresa taking me to this anti-Klan rally on the Ellipse," says Jiiko Caldwell, 37, a reading and resource teacher at the Arts and Technology Academy Public Charter School on Blaine Street NE. "And she took me to a rally when they were trying to get a King holiday. . . . Sometimes its difficult for me to conceptualize that all of this is so recent."
To the Caldwells, the city's struggles felt like their own.
"Our father was always aware of his heritage," says Sia, "and always wanted to make us connected to our past. He would tell us stories so much -- and so vividly. It was the desire to be connected."A Last Living Link to Slavery
Dorothy Miller, 82, is sitting in her tidy apartment in Old Bridge, N.J. Her father, Isador, was a mechanic who died at the age of 29. Her mother, Eunice, was a domestic, a cleaning woman. (Sometimes it seems as if the entire working history of poor black women in America can be seen in a tableau of domestic workers -- maids -- in motion.)
Dorothy Miller was once a Carmelite nun, then left the convent to become a nurse. Once she lived in Portugal. She just scooped up her four adopted children and went across the ocean. She never married and has always loved adventure. She is the last flesh-and-blood Caldwell link to the sad-eyed slave pictured in the Caldwells' home.
Miller was a toddler when her great-grandmother Emily Nolan arrived at her family's brownstone in the Bronx in 1927. Nolan, born in 1839 in Virginia, was 88.
Emily had been a field slave and after Emancipation, she continued to live in the Alexandria area, where she met and married James Nolan. The couple had two children: George -- Roland Caldwell's grandfather -- and a daughter, Carrie, both of whom were born in Alexandria. Over the next several decades, George Nolan moved, along with his mother, from Virginia to Washington to Providence, R.I. But apparently the burden of caring for Emily had become too much for George by the late 1920s, and Emily was sent to New York, where the inhabitants of a Bronx brownstone were shocked at the malnourished condition she appeared to be in.
"Emily had not been well taken care before she arrived," says Miller, recounting how her family talked about Nolan's first days with them. "She had been rejected by other people in the family. And she was not in good condition. She had swollen legs and feet. She needed to be cleaned up. My mother put a rollaway bed in the kitchen for her. That was the only place we had room."
Nolan fretted when Miller's mother suggested she let them help her with a bath. "She had apparently never taken a bath in a bathtub," says Miller.
The Miller women came to realize that Nolan thought she might drown in the tin tub. After nearly a year, Nolan relented and the bath must have felt heavenly. "Because from then on out, in the evenings," recalls Miller, "she would say to us, 'Well, daughter, is it time for my bath now?' "
Little Dorothy would sit and stare at the former slave woman. "She was just this little old lady. She used to like gingersnaps very much. Just loved those. I remember sidling up to her, wanting some of her ginger snaps."
"I believe she was so reticent and quiet because she had been a slave. People just didn't talk about those things," Miller says. "The word 'slavery' was never mentioned. You have to understand. It was the Depression. People were stressed out. Who had time to deal with this little old lady?"
Just after New Year's Day 1936, Nolan fell ill with pneumonia. There was no money for a hospital. A month later she passed away in her little room at the family apartment at 830 St. Nicholas Ave. in Harlem. George Harris, the former Gold Dust Twin, paid for the burial. There was a one-paragraph mention of her death in a local newspaper: "Mrs. Emily E. Nolan passed away in NYC where she lived with her granddaughter Eunice. She died Feb. 7, 1936."
After the grown-ups had removed Nolan's body from the house, little Dorothy strode into the room where Emily had been lying in bed. "I remember her room was empty -- and it was cold."
"The most she ever had in life," Miller says of Emily Nolan, "was when she was with my mother."
"I had read about slavery growing up," says Patricia Caldwell. "I had heard stories. But I can personally say I have a picture of a family member who was a slave. There are many blacks who can't reach into their history like that."Million Man March
In the early 1990s, the ills afflicting black men seemed to grow especially acute. Black boys were growing up without their fathers. Inner-city crime spiked and prisons swelled with young black men. Rap -- edgy and raw -- seemed to define a cultural moment. John Singleton's movie "Boyz N the Hood" and Nathan McCall's memoir "Makes Me Wanna Holler" helped explain a kind of pathology that bewildered many.
The controversial Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan came up with an idea. A call went out to fathers, grandfathers, uncles and sons and brothers: Get in a car; get on a bus; take the train. Come to Washington. There would be a Million Man March.
The goal was for older men to come and inspire the younger generation. They could pass along stories of survival. They would celebrate each other. Middle-class men who lived in suburbs could mingle with less-fortunate blacks and perhaps encourage them.
On the morning of Oct. 16, 1995, Roland Caldwell rose again. He and his son Roland Jr., an elementary schoolteacher in Richmond, and two grandsons -- Rahman, Theresa's son, and Dalantae, Patricia's son -- all went to the Mall. There were echoes of the 1960s, with a mass of people, gathering near an iconic American monument. But this one was quite self-reflective.
Roland Jr. wanted to honor the achievements made through history by black men, but he also wanted to gain a deeper understanding of black-on-black crime. "Too much success in the inner city had to do with 'fast money,' " he says. "So it was good to look up at the Million Man March and see doctors, lawyers and psychologists. There was a whole gamut of people you could look up to who weren't entertainers or sports figures."
"There was so much focus in the country on black-on-black crime leading up to the march," he says. "But are there statistics showing the comparative success rate of black men in the community? That was the good thing about the Million Man March."
But then, a beat later, he says: "I have to say most of the bad things in life that have happened to me, physically, have happened at the hands of black men. Now, it's the white people who've cut me down with a pencil. But I went to Human Kindness Day in Washington back in '75. Stevie Wonder was there. The concession stands got robbed. At the Million Man March there was nothing like that that happened."
Rahman was 12 at the time. "I realized the magnitude of it," he says. "The power of a lot of people. I would appreciate it more now. But it was so interesting just being out there."Grant Park, Nov. 4, 2008
Theresa Caldwell has an office inside the Library of Congress where she works on behalf of the man who freed her great-great-grandmother. She is director of Town Hall programs for the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, a series of events scheduled in various cities to talk about "how we can finish Lincoln's unfinished work on issues such as race, civility and education," she says.
She left a job on the staff of Rep. Jackson to work at the commission. Friends wondered why she wanted to take a job that would be over by the end of this year. "To be part of the national conversation about Lincoln's unfinished work when there is a black president who is going to take the oath of office on Lincoln's Bible is -- well, you couldn't say no!"
The Capitol lights up the darkness outside her office window. Pictures of Lincoln are everywhere. "Craig and I -- my fiance -- went to Monticello. I always have a moment at a place like that where I feel slavery. There are times when I'll just stand or sit down and I look around and I think: What did this look like to slaves?"
She is grateful that her father had foresight to search the family's ancestral roots.
She says: "To see Emily hanging in my parents' house, and to sit here every day, literally looking at Abe Lincoln, and there's the Capitol building right there -- knowing that slaves helped to build that and knowing that there are going to be people living in the White House with a similar story to mine? Well, there are just no words for it."
She and her son Rahman were standing just outside Grant Park in Chicago on the epochal night that Barack Obama won the presidency.
She was in Chicago because a Caldwell had to be there.
The slave's great-great-granddaughter says: "When Jesse Jackson used to say 'Keep hope alive' -- it's kind of a joke now -- but do you know how hard it's been to keep hope alive? My grandmother was a dirt farmer. How do you keep hope alive? In the Montgomery bus boycott, those women didn't have Nike shoes. How do you keep hope alive? Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney had hope," she says, referring to three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi in 1964. "White, black and brown all paid a price for that hope."Epilogue: The Mall, Jan. 20, 2009
Through Emancipation and Reconstruction, through the Great Migration and the wave of rope lynchings and the injustice of the Scottsboro trials, through Marian Anderson's achingly beautiful voice on the Mall and the preacher from Georgia who word-sang a dream, black families have hung on to a word full of hope and pain and glory and optimism. A simple yet strong word: Someday.
Someday a whole lot of pain will be washed away. Someday a great many dreams will come true.
"Just look at the history of the abolitionists," Roland Caldwell says, explaining his decades-long optimism.
"There are a lot of things that took a long time coming," says Patricia Caldwell.
Roland Caldwell had a plan for today. He would get dressed, take his cane and walk past the picture of Emily Nolan in his living room. He and Audrey would meet up with their children and grandchildren. They planned to get to a little something over on Pennsylvania Avenue. They would, once again, be in the shadows of the buildings and the monuments they grew up around.
They would watch an epochal swearing-in.
Today -- Jan. 20, 2009 -- Someday has arrived.