Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson

Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson

by Barbara Ransby

ISBN: 9780300124347

Publisher Yale University Press

Published in Biographies & Memoirs/Leaders & Notable People

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One


Ever since I can remember, I have always been determined never to let anyone push me around. Eslanda Robeson

Eslanda Cardozo Goode (or Essie, as her friends and family called her) came from a long line of Black educators who placed a high premium on literacy and learning—and who had to fight for their place in the world every step of the way. Essie, named after her mother, would become the most academically accomplished of the three Goode siblings, but she would also mature into a fearless and tenacious fighter when circumstances called for it. And circumstances often did. "My grandfather Cardozo went to prison for his beliefs, so I have it in my blood," she once told a friend. She inherited her fighting spirit and her love of learning from both her maternal grandfather and her mother, the two Cardozos who had the most lasting influence on her life and thinking.

Essie recalled her first run-in with racism, which happened when she was a little girl, not yet five years old, living in an integrated neighborhood in the nation's capital. She recounted the incident this way: "One of the earliest things I remember is playing with a little boy who lived across the street from us ... it was about the year 1900. The boy was white but I had not yet realized that there was any color difference between us.... One day while we were playing I wanted my turn at something—a game or a toy, I don't remember exactly what it was. I had waited for my turn, but he wouldn't let me have it. I insisted and he got angry and called me a 'nigger.' I asked what it meant. He said it meant something bad—and something black. That infuriated me, for I knew I wasn't bad and I wasn't black. I pushed him and then I chased him home. His mother asked me why we were fighting and I told her what he had called me and that I was going to kill him if he called me any more bad names."

Despite a few more fights and scuffles, Essie had mostly fond memories of her childhood growing up in Washington, D.C., and New York City in the late 1890s and early 1900s. She was the youngest of three children, and the only girl, born on December 15, 1895. Eslanda and John Goode had four children but only three survived. A baby girl, Dorothy, born in 1897, lived only a few short months. Her eldest brother was John Cardozo Goode, born on April 20, 1892, and named after his father. The middle child, Francis Cardozo Goode, the largest and most athletic of the three, was born May 14, 1894. The Goode family settled into a comfortable life in Washington but the stability and good fortune was short-lived. John Goode died suddenly when Essie was only five years old. Even though he had been a successful man and a hard worker, according to relatives he had also been a heavy drinker, which may have contributed to his early death.

After she lost her husband, Essie's mother moved the family to New York for better job opportunities. In Essie's words, her mother "rose to the occasion when she was left a penniless widow with three children, gathered us into her arms and ventured forth to New York (where everyone went and still goes to make a fortune)." They lived for a time in what Essie later described as "a cold-water railroad flat." But her mother worked hard and soon reestablished her footing in the Black middle class. Essie recalled an essentially happy childhood. She described herself as a "fat, healthy tomboyish little girl" accomplished in academics and in sports. But life for Essie and her family was not always carefree or simple. Like most educated Black people in this period, her family's accomplishments were precariously maintained. They were relatively advantaged, but still constrained by the strictures of racism that applied to poor and prosperous alike. Even in cosmopolitan New York City in 1900 there were racist restrictions on where Negroes could eat, live, work, and socialize. The Cardozo-Goode family felt the sting of discrimination like everyone else.

On her mother's side, Essie came from a long line of prominent, highly educated Black people who had managed to attain success during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, despite rampant racism. They were proud of being Negroes, but also proud of their Spanish ancestry. The Cardozos traced their heritage to a clan of wealthy Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from the Iberian Peninsula centuries earlier. The family was not wealthy, but was on the whole better off than many of their Negro counterparts. Essie's maternal grandfather, Francis Lewis Cardozo, was a notable South Carolina politician during Reconstruction who later became a respected educator in Washington, D.C. His legacy loomed large in the family lore. Even though Essie barely knew her maternal grandfather, she knew his illustrious life story well and recounted it often as an adult.

Francis Lewis Cardozo, a man so light-skinned that he could have passed for white if he had chosen to do so, was the son of a free Black mother of mixed ancestry, Lydia Williams, and a rich, white Charleston businessman, Isaac Nunez Cardozo. Not much is known about Lydia's background or whether she was ever enslaved, but as an adult she lived the life of a free "colored" woman. When Isaac died, Lydia and the couple's seven children fell on hard times. There is no firm evidence that Isaac was actually married to Lydia, since interracial marriage was illegal in the state of South Carolina at that time. Rumor had it that they had traveled to Ohio to marry and returned to Charleston to live quietly as husband and wife. Essie's accounts of her great-grandparents are of the "happy couple" living in a "beautiful home" before Isaac's death. Isaac passed away when Francis was still a boy, and the children were not recognized as legal heirs to the Cardozo family estate. Regardless of the legalities, Essie's mother nurtured a strong connection to the Cardozo lineage. Essie observed proudly that she had "Spanish blood," and from the antebellum period onward, family names were preserved: "There has always been a Francis and an Eslanda in every generation of the Cardozos." Essie and her two brothers also bore Cardozo as their legal middle name.

Despite his father's death and his family's financial struggles, young Francis did well for himself. He worked as a shipbuilder's apprentice and carpenter in South Carolina, eventually making his way to Scotland, where he attended the University of Edinburgh and earned academic accolades. He subsequently moved to England and studied briefly at Oxford. Upon his return to the United States, Francis settled in New Haven, Connecticut. There, he met and married Catharine Romena Howell, a "pure white looking woman with patrician features" who was of Scotch, Danish, and West Indian descent. The couple had five children: the four boys, George, Francis, William, and Henry; and a girl, Eslanda. Along the way, Francis had become a Presbyterian minister, so the new couple spent a short time in New Haven before they accepted an offer from the American Missionary Association to open a religious school in Charleston, South Carolina, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Under Cardozo's leadership, the Saxon School evolved into a highly respected institution, and was eventually renamed the Avery Institute of South Carolina.

Based on his career as an educator and given the racial reforms of Reconstruction, Francis was able to launch a short but distinguished political career. He was elected state treasurer of South Carolina, becoming the first African American to hold statewide office. After two terms as treasurer, during which he pushed for educational and land reforms to benefit freed Blacks, he became Secretary of State, a position he held until 1877. Historians have described Francis Cardozo as both "a symbol of integrity" and a rigorous proponent of the rights of Black freed people. By the time he became Secretary of State, however, former Confederate leaders had begun to regain political power in the South, staging targeted and effective misinformation campaigns to unseat progressive Blacks like Francis who had managed to secure positions of influence during Reconstruction. Francis fought back hard against the resurgent white elites, but was unable to hold on. As the Cardozos' own family history would have it, Francis Cardozo's persecution centered on his refusal to be complicit in the notorious Tilden-Hayes presidential compromise of 1877. That compromise followed the presidential election of 1876, which was a near tie. To resolve the deadlock, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes essentially agreed to an unsavory compromise: to pull federal troops from the South, effectively ending Reconstruction and the political inclusion and enfranchisement of Blacks. The Democrats, the forces that had supported slavery and opposed Black citizenship rights, asked Francis to throw his support behind Tilden in exchange for a crude cash reward. As the story was recounted to future generations of Cardozos, he would not even consider such an unprincipled proposition. Consequently, he was soon arrested on trumped-up embezzlement charges, tried, convicted, and jailed for one year. After his release from prison, he resettled in Washington, D.C., where racism was less harsh and the color line a bit less rigid. Indeed, the racial tensions were so high in South Carolina at the end of Reconstruction in 1876 that his immediate family had to flee the state the night after he was arrested for fear of Ku Klux Klan reprisals. They spent a year in Washington, D.C., awaiting Cardozo's release.

When Francis first arrived in Washington, D.C., despite having been an elected official and having impressive academic credentials, the only job he was offered was as a janitor in a government building. He declined the offer, secured a position as a clerk, and after a short time was able to return to the field of education, which he loved. Francis Cardozo went on to found two prominent high schools in Washington and to establish himself as a preeminent and pioneering Negro educator. Cardozo High School in northwest Washington, D.C., still bears his name.

Francis shared a special relationship with his only daughter, Eslanda (Essie's mother). He was a father, a teacher, mentor, role model, and gentle patriarch. When she was a young woman, Eslanda often took long walks with her father after dinner, during which they would exchange ideas about history, culture, and politics. Francis Cardozo respected his daughter's views and opinions and encouraged her to express them openly. The two of them "talked long and earnestly about the Negro problem," and Francis made sure his daughter had a good sense of Negro history. Eslanda Cardozo was deeply influenced both by her father and by the illustrious guests whom he frequently hosted in their home, including on at least one occasion the revered abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass, and his wife, Helen Pitts Douglass.

Writing about her grandfather many years after his death, Essie Robeson's recollections were vivid, more vivid than her own childhood memories could explain. Her mother, it seems, told and retold stories of her own father with such vigor that they became ingrained in each of her children. Decades after her grandfather's death, Essie recalled, "All during my childhood I heard and read about Francis Lewis Cardozo and his great contribution to the making of Reconstruction history.... We are all very proud of his great dignity and integrity." Essie's mother followed in her father's footsteps to pursue a career, albeit short-lived, as an educator, before marriage and motherhood. So important was Francis Cardozo's legacy to his descendants that Essie and her mother actually had an argument decades after his death about who had a right to tell his story in book form. By contrast, very few family stories are recounted about Eslanda's mother, Essie's grandmother, Catharine Romena Howell, who lived well into her eighties. We know that she was born in Connecticut in about 1843, met Francis Cardozo while singing in the church choir, then married and moved to South Carolina with him.

Color was important to the Cardozos. In a lengthy section that Essie wrote for her 1930 book Paul Robeson, Negro—and later omitted—she explored the nuances of color consciousness among Negroes of her class and generation. Every family she knew had a light-skinned relative who, as she put it, had "crossed over." Her own great uncle Jacob Cardozo had merged into white Louisiana society, marrying and raising a family, most of whom, as Essie put it, "never knew of his Negro blood." Years later one of Jacob's sons came to Washington, D.C., and, somewhat inadvertently, met his Negro cousins, one of whom was Essie's mother. Such discoveries were not uncommon, Essie insisted. She recounted in detail the findings of an investigative report (no citation given) that documented how some Negro individuals had disappeared from the census records only to have whites with the same names and birth dates surface ten years later. These "disappearances" were part of the widespread practice of light-skinned Blacks passing for white in order to obtain better jobs, opportunities, and social status. The families of these individuals, Essie insisted, were usually complicit in the deception, or defection, as it were. In her words, "If today a Negro meets his fairer brother in the company of a white person in a downtown street, the darker one gives no sign of recognition unless the fair one does so first. This has been an unwritten law among Negroes for years: one must never speak to a fair brother or sister on the street unless spoken to first; the fair one might be 'passing,' and if he is greeted familiarly by a Negro his secret may be revealed."

Whether Essie's account of this so-called unwritten rule is fully accurate, or whether the reality is a bit more nuanced, is up for debate. What is known is that the color line was taken seriously in America and among American Negroes, and that individual decisions about whether or how to cross that line were always complex and fraught with anxiety. At the same time, a sense of fairness and equity pervaded the Cardozo family's values. One historian of nineteenth-century South Carolina schools noted that although he lived in a color-conscious world where light-skinned Negroes experienced real privileges, Francis Cardozo was an anti-racist educator who "ridiculed the notion that (so-called) mulattos learned more quickly than darker students" and "harbored no racial prejudice" toward dark-skinned Blacks. He believed that all students had similar abilities and the same rights to an education. Needless to say not all of his contemporaries agreed.

Eslanda Elbert Cardozo married John Jacob Astor Goode on June 16, 1890, ended her brief teaching career, and began to raise a family. It was the eve of the twentieth century; a century that W. E. B. Du Bois wrote would be divided and defined by the color line. It was a line that Essie's family alternately walked, crossed, ignored, and challenged. Essie's mother was so light-skinned herself that a 1900 census taker mistook her for a white woman, most likely further confused by the fact that all of the family's immediate neighbors were white. Eslanda Cardozo had rebelled against elitist attitudes about skin color within some quarters of her own family by marrying a dark-skinned man. John Goode was handsome and well educated, and Eslanda had great expectations for his future success, perhaps to prove her color-conscious relatives wrong as much as anything else. Ironically, Eslanda was still not completely free of her own subtle color bias, and would one day frown upon her own daughter's choice of a dark-skinned husband.

John Goode could not claim as aristocratic a lineage as his wife, and his children knew far less about his family history. The one thing Essie did know is that her paternal grandparents claimed partial American Indian ancestry, although she did not know which tribe or ethnicity they belonged to. She also knew that her father was an accomplished man. Born in Cook County, Illinois, in 1861, just as the Civil War commenced, John J. A. Goode was raised in Chicago. He graduated from Evanston Township High School (in a northern Chicago suburb), and later earned degrees from both Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C. Records from the National Archives indicate that John Jacob Astor Goode—his "robber baron" name hints that his parents had grand ambitions for his future—enjoyed a solid career as a government employee. He was appointed to a position as a federal government clerk in 1885 at a decent salary of $1,000 a year. After a promotion and raise, that figure went up to $1,200 a few years later. Census records, newspaper social pages, and other primary and secondary sources paint a picture of Washington, D.C.'s African American community in the late 1800s as highly stratified and intensely class and color conscious. The Goodes navigated that social landscape with great care.


Excerpted from "Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson" by Barbara Ransby. Copyright © 0 by Barbara Ransby. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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