Lena Horne was the first black woman to get a contract with a major Hollywood Studio
By John Lawrence
Born into a black bourgeoisie family in 1917, Lena Horne was signed up in the NAACP by her grandmother, Cora Calhoun Horne, a college graduate, at the age of two. The Hornes owned a four-story residence in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn.
The distinguished Horne family included teachers, activists and a Harlem Renaissance poet. Lena’s uncle became dean of a black college. According to James Gavin’s biography of Lena, Stormy Weather, the black bourgeoisie were descendants of favored slaves “privileged blacks who, by virtue of their brains or their sexual allure to their masters, had worked in the house, not in the field. During the decade-long heyday of Reconstruction, they’d used their cachet to start businesses and gain social standing.”
Lena’s grandmother drilled into her respectability at all costs. She was to use proper diction, no dialect allowed, and always present herself as a lady. Cora was a determined fighter for black causes, and, despite her disdain for whites, she married a white man. According to Gavin, Cora’s cafe au lait skin, thin lips and delicate nose betrayed generations of intermingling with whites. Her maiden name, Calhoun, came from her father’s slavemaster in Georgia, Dr. Andrew Bonaparte Calhoun. His uncle was Senator John C Calhoun who championed slavery as God’s will.