Updated: Nov 15, 2022
Did he have Jewish ancestry?
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 of this progenitor passed down orally through generations was Silas Cushenberry, along with the claim that he was Jewish. For 75 years this has been repeated in biographical works about Hughes’s life, and it even made its way onto the University of Kentucky Libraries' website in a sketch about his father (http://nkaa.uky.edu/record.php?note_id=515).
Benjamin Ivry mentioned this tale in his review (The Forward, 26 Jun 2015) 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 the claim. We first conducted census surveys of clans with that surname from 1810 onward in the United States and delved into records tracing his immediate known family. By 1860 we reached an impasse, as the general U.S. Census that year did not record slaves, and although a separate census specifically enumerated slaves, we found no conclusive listings of Hughes’s 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. There is 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. 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 have been 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 the real history of your family to your children and grandchildren.