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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/washingtonpost.com

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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.

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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."

Heaven on 125th Street

Like so many stories out of the album of black America, the Caldwell saga begins in the South.

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."

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."

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.

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.

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