In the late 18th century a slave named Betty was sold to the owner of the newly established Bennehan-Cameron plantation near here. Between 1781 and 1801, she gave birth to eight children.
Nearly 200 years later - on Sunday - the descendants of this obscure slave woman gathered for a reunion at Lake Mikie, upstream on the Flat River from where Betty worked.
Most of them didn't know about Betty - and weren't especially excited about being descendants. They didn't have old stories like Alex Haley, who used his grandmother's tales to help trace his ancestry. But they knew about recent ancestors.
"Oh, look at Aunt Fannie," said a woman in her 50s as she looked at a photography of Fannie Umstead, born in 1879. "That picture looks just like her."
Houston Kern Leathers delivered a moving testimonial to his grandfather, John Willie Henderson, born in 1886. "He was a wonderful counselor, fine businessman, excellent planter and an herb doctor," he recalled. "He's responsible for who I am today."
But all was not sweet reminiscing. Easter Brooks, 62, has bitter memories of her grandfather, Strephan Henderson. "He was a mean man," she remembered. "I hated him because he didn't like my mother. He thought she was too dark. He thought my father should've married a "bright" (light-skinned) woman."
On the whole, it was a low-key event. About 100 persons miled around a sheltered area at Lake Mikie, about 12 miles northeast of Durham. They looked as photographs and family tree charts mounted on three plywood boards, greeted each other with hugs, kisses and vigorous handshakes. And they ate - fried chicken, Hawaiian chicken, butter beans, potato salad, pound cake, sweet potato pie.
The reunion encompassed five families - the Hendersons, Harts, Umsteads, Justices and Holmans, all descendants of Betty. They have gone on in the spirit of the American dream of achievement and social mobility to become teachers, executives, lawyers and doctors, secretaries, lab technicians and sales clerks.
But the first family members worked as slaves and later as share-croppers on the plantation, one of the larges tobacco-producing estates in 18th and 19th Century America. Many of them lived in the plantation's Horton Grove community - in five cabins, some of which are still standing.
Sunday's reunion was the first for the five-family grouping. Like many Americans these days, they are experiencing new pride in family tradition and spirit.
Jessie H. Exum of District Heights, a member of the Henderson family, said, "I look forward to these reunions. Some of the older people may not be with us much longer."
According to recent surveys, the interest in family reunions and geneology has increased considerably since the showing of "Roots" the TV dramatization of Alex Haley's book tracing his family back to an 18th-century African.
Did "Roots" hold any significance for the families gathered Sunday at Lake Mikie?
Beatrice Henderson, 61, one of the chief organizers of the reunion, said "I think we have a little more than "Roots." We've got five different families - all these cousins, uncles, aunts."
Betty's direct descendants weren't the only ones attending the event - distant relatives came too.Eighty-eight, year-old Turner Henderson Jr., a member of another branch of the Henderson family, stayed for six hours despite the 95-degree temperature.
"My grandfather was the cook for Paul Cameron (owner of the plantation from the 1891)," he said. "Don't let anybody tell you anything different. Paul Cameron was a good man."
Sunday's reunion provided lots of material for historians. "This family has extraordinary continity," remarked Duke University history professor Lawrence C. Goodwyn.
Herbert G. Gutman, history proffessor at City University of New York, flew in for the event. He had a personal stake in the reunion. In his book. "The Black Family in Slavery adn Freedom, 1750-1925," he uses the descendants of Betty to 1842 to help prove his thesis that the Afor-American slave family survived the harshness of breakup and separation.
"This may be the longest kinship relation among Afro-Americans in the country. It's a piece-together record between 1781 and 1900. There's no oral tradition. I doubt if this can be replicated."
Speaking rapidly in his New York accent, Gutman, 49, spent much of his time at the reunion excitedly discussing genealogy with family members.
"This is quite intriguing to me," said Owen Justice after talking with Gutman. "You don't realize what a treasure it is to have old pictures and records of your family until someone starts talking with you about them. I think it's great. I'm going to spend more time doing some research on my past."
Another person scurrying through the family gathering taking photographs, offering counsel and mounting family tre charts he'd drawn up, was George McDaniel, a 32-year-old white doctoral candidate in history at Duke.
More than anyone else, he has ferreted out the details of family history since 1842. He has also taken photocabins. McDaniel photographed Suday's reunion under a Smithsonian Institution grant for possible exhibit at the Museum of History and Technology.
"George has a remarkable rapport with these people," observed Gutman. "They trust him and believe he's got their interest at hart."
Reunion chief organizer Beatrice Henderson agreed: "George has been a big help. He's a good man."
Sitting at a picnic table at about 5 p.m., when most of the family had departed and the food was eaten or put away, Henderson; a short, stocky brown-skinned woman, ruminated: "I had mixed emotions at first when we decided to put this reunion together. We worked on it for about two weeks. And there were times when I didn't think we'd make it.
"But we all wanted to do it. I thought I was doing something to insure that my father's legend would live on forever. I've always felt through the years that he would never die. I thought he would just fade away. So now I feel rewarded."