I found lost history, two books, and a moment of epiphany in my grandfather's trunk—which I had almost tossed away as garbage. The trunk had passed unceremoniously from my grandfather to my mother to me and ended up sitting in my basement, unopened for nearly two decades. After resolving to get rid of the clutter in my life, I decided the trunk had to go. But I planned, out of respect for my grandfather, to look through his things before I threw them out.
I was amazed by what I found. Amid a jumble of family mementos, I came across records of extraordinary people. My slave great-great-great-grandmother, for instance, earned enough money selling cakes and homemade wine on the streets of Newnan, Georgia, in the 1840s and '50s to buy freedom for herself and most of her family before the Civil War. I uncovered family photographs from the 1860s; clippings from my great-grandfather's self-published newspaper, the Indianapolis Freeman; my great-grandmother's college diploma from 1881; and a letter to my great-grandfather from Benjamin Harrison, a future president of the United States, written in 1884. (Harrison and my great-grandfather were both Indiana Republicans.) There was also a 1919 issue of The Crisis, the influential magazine of the NAACP, featuring 2-year-old Lena Horne, my mother, as the youngest lifetime member.
Here was abundant evidence of the black middle class—an American secret, most likely because stories of quiet black success were never of interest to the media. I knew I needed to share our history.