When money ran so low that she couldn't afford Lena's care, Edna scraped together what cash she could to buy her a train ticket to Brooklyn. Traveling alone with a tag on her lapel, the little girl returned to what -she later called her "only sense of roots." But invariably Edna plucked her away again. It seemed odd that Cora—who battled for the rights of young people she didn't even know—would not have taken steps to keep Lena home. And did the moneyed and connected Teddy Horne know or care about his daughter's plight? Teddy, of course, had deserted the family, and surrendered his fatherly control. Time and again Lena toted her bag down the staircase of the Chauncey Street brownstone, heeding a familiar command: "Come on, Lena, we're going! "
The child next found herself in southern Ohio, where Edna placed her with a doctor and his family. They treated her affectionately, and she had her own room in a comfortable house. But she knew it wouldn't last, and she began having terrible nightmares. In 1974, she told reporter Nancy Collins that every time she developed a loving relationship with her caregivers, her mother snatched her away. She became "afraid of people...of letting myself be close to them," lest she get her feelings hurt. From then on, she lived with lowered expectations. "I made my peace that no one really did love me," she said, "regardless of my color."
In 1927, Edna got word of possible work in Macon, a prosperous city in central Georgia. The train pulled into a tidy, bustling downtown area, with trolleys running through it; in another well-tended area stood the nearly century-old Wesleyan College for women. But southern Negro poverty awaited Lena again when Edna left her in her latest foster home. The child's new "street" was a fly-ridden, dirt alleyway lined by wooden frame houses. She recalled moving into a two-room shack whose walls were patched with newspaper. Washing clothes in a big iron pot out back was the lady of the house—"a very elderly mammy," said Horne—who presided over many boarders. Her daughter lived there with her two children, one a little girl named Thelma. The other, a boy, shared the mammy's bed, at the foot of which lay a cot for Lena. Others slept in the kitchen.
The old lady seemed to sense Lena's loneliness, and treated her caringly. Now ten, Lena noticed how the poorest people she met were usually the kindest, for they understood struggle better than anyone. The daughter, who cooked for a white family, brought home scraps of fine southern food, and made sure Lena never went hungry.
Edna was broke on a regular basis and struggled to afford Lena's upkeep. For all her mother's flightiness, Lena still yearned for her, and refused to see her as a villain. "She tried hard to take care of me," said the singer in 1952. Lena would later observe that a black woman of the day was "apt to be a whore" when times got rough. Since actresses were already deemed loose women, prostitution proved an easy segue. A journalist who knew Horne well recalled her mentioning that Edna had sold her body, at least briefly. It wasn't surprising; Horne also spoke of her mother's prostitute friends, with whom she'd stayed.