The oft-told tale

Langston Hughes’ Jewish ancestry
How bubbe meise went viral in the age before the internet

In The Big Sea, an autobiography by Langston Hughes published in 1940, he recounted a spare history of his family line that included a great-grandfather, a slave trader who fathered his grandmother. The name that came down attached to this story as it was passed orally through generations was Silas Cushenberry, and the claim was that he was Jewish. For 75 years this has been repeated in biographical works about Hughes’s life, and even made it’s way onto the University of Kentucky Libraries website in a sketch about Hughes’ father (http://nkaa.uky.edu/record.php?note_id=515).

In a recent issue of the Forward (26 Jun 2015) Benjamin Ivry mentioned this tale in a review of The Selected Letters of Langston Hughes edited by Arnold Rampersad. Needless to say, our genealogical antennae were quivering as we set about to research Hughes’ lineage.

We conducted some census surveys of clans with that surname from 1810 onward in the United States and delved into records tracing Hughes’ immediate known family. Of course by 1860 we reached an impasse as the U.S. Census for that year did not record slaves, and although a separate census was conducted specifically enumerating slaves we found no conclusive listings of Hughes’ grandmother.

Finding no indications of Jewish affiliation, we searched further and came across a compilation of the history of the Cushenberry families published in 1897, Genealogical Memoranda of the Quisenberry Families, written by Anderson Chenault Quisenberry (https://archive.org/details/genealogicalmemo00quis). The Cushenberry families were not Jewish, but descendants of English immigrants who settled in Virginia, Kentucky, and Indiana initially. There is one mention of a Silas Cusheberry who served in the Civil War, and clear notations that the family included members of many Christian denominations. We emailed Mr. Rampersad with our findings and he replied that he wasn’t surprised.

Remarkably it seems that no one saw fit to investigate the claim, and while Hughes may have had a Jewish slave holding ancestor, his name was not Silas Cushenberry. This exercise brings to mind a disturbing trend in genealogical research perpetuated by Ancestry.com and their use of “hints.” Although useful in connecting researchers with public trees established by others, it has encouraged sloppy investigations. With the click of a mouse, false information is copied onto another person’s tree, then copied again, until the data goes viral and is accepted as fact.

The moral of the story? Verify your conjectured facts with documentation. Don’t believe oral tales passed down in your family until you have done your best to locate records to support them. Sometimes the data will reveal disturbing truths that families have hidden with more pleasant memories, and this may not be welcome news for older family members who have grown up with familiar stories. Be tactful, be gracious, share the information with your relatives who care to know the truth and pass down to your children and grandchildren the real history of your family.