Funerals are, of course, sad occasions, but life goes on, and the party that started after one funeral in Detroit 12 years ago is held again each year. It drew 1,500 people to the Sheraton Park Hotel and Kenilworth Park this weekend.
All the people, or virtually all, formerly lived in Meridian, Miss., hence the name of the group, the Meridianites.
Early yesterday morning the Saturday grand ball was in full thunder, the dance floor lively and the tables packed with Meridianites in ball gowns, white suits and tricolored sashes with fringe.
The place resembled a conglobulation of marcechals of France and the Knights of St. John.
Tables of people from Chicago, St. Paul and Washington (51 active ones in the local chapter) bloomed with hors d'oeuvre plates beneath the prismatic silver ballroom ceiling with gold lights, while an uproar of teenagers discoed earnestly in a dimly lighted cavern across the hall.
Earlier there had been a vast picnic in an open window, and tours and golf games the day before, plus a talent show with pink punch and cookies of 26 kinds.
The average Yankee might be surprised that since the membership is all black - and chiefly blacks who left home to find a better life outside Mississippi - there should be such an insistence on keeping up home ties and celebrating the city of Meridian, in which blacks led segregated lives until recently.
"I was riding to Meridian in a plane with three white businessmen," said Matthew Louise Barnes of Maywood, Ill., a restaurateur, "and one of them said I should move back.He said that now I could go anywhere in Meridian.
"But I said, 'You want me to come back and spend my money, now that I've made it. But when I was 16, there were places I wanted to go in Meridian and I couldn't.
"If all the people here had stayed in Meridian, and been able to do there what they have done elsewhere, we'd have been a fantastic city. A city should hold on to its own, keep its own. I left in 1949, as soon as I finished high school."
Hazel Bolton of Milford, Conn., a gray-haired woman in an orange brocade dress sprigged with flowers, said:
'When you're young, you don't realize you can build it (a successful life) anywhere."
Barnes said, "The opportunities were not there."
"In Mississippi," said Bolton, "white men and black women had the breaks. The black woman was the white man's woman, whether she wanted it or not. My great-grandmother had my grandmother by a full-blooded Irishman. She came out as white as you are. She was lucky, her white father acknowledged her and left her land. And he took care of her. She, in turn, gave her sons land, at Enterprise, Miss." And thus, through a liaison illegal at the time, economic independence was gained for the great-grandmother's descendants.
Bettye Morton of Chicago seemed typical of the young women who left Meridian. She teaches children who do not hear well, in Chicago schools. Jewel Morgan of New Haven, another young woman, works as a cost accountant at a hospital.
Margaret O'Neal of St. Paul is editor of a newsletter for the Twin Cities chapter of Meridianites: "All we needed was announcements of the monthly meetings," she said a trifle sheepishly, "but I always wanted to say something else, so it grew into a full-fledged newsletter."
"I was a Burton before I was a Harmon," said Ophelia Burton Harmon, with just the least clue in her tone as to which family was the grander, and the double handful of cookies, she explained, was for a friend. She said that when the society met back in Medridian a couple of years ago, "we fed more than 5,000," and others said 7,000. Shows what a couple of loaves and fishers will do.
"When the friend passed, in Detroit, that's when this all started," said Bolton. "If they could do it for a death, everybody thought, then they could get together for the living, and I think it's the most beautiful thing I ever heard of."
Several guests said it was their big trip of the year.
It was the first time some had been in the capital, and some remarked that since the meetings are held in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Detroit, Washington, etc., it's a great way to see the country with sympathetic friends.
"I certainly wouldn't have traveled here from Mineapolis just by myself," said one.
Ocie Drake, who left Meridian in 1943, joined the Army and afterwards went to school in Minneapolis, then to New York to learn how to make false teeth and other dental prosthetics. He now lives in Detroit and observed:
"Meridian certainly is a nicer place for blacks today than Detroit. Detroit is more segregated, more hostile. Meridian is better than most of the larger cities, and children would get a better upbringing there, as far as the community itself is concerned."
A Meridian mathematics teacher, Leroy Caffey, moved to Detroit in 1962, where he now teaches at Osborn High. He goes back to Mississippi once or twice a year:
"A lot of changes there," he said, "and we have basic rights there now that should have been ours in the beginning."
C.E. Oatis of Meridian, president of the Meridinites chapter there, moved to Meridian from nearby Jackson in 1948. He was a school band director, but since school segregation ended he has become principal of Magnolia Junior High. He said black children get a lot better education in Meridian than in most places.
Caffey said that most of the prominent educators in the North were in fact educated in the South, and "in the North that respect for parents and school that you find in the South does not exist."
Oatis says his school is 60 percent black.
An old man, Oraton Sweetner of Cleveland, left Greenville, Miss., 52 years ago, but visits Mississippi two months every year.
"I used to get up very early before school, and drive a bus around to collect choppers or pickers for the cotton plantations and fake them out, then after school I'd go pick them up, and that way made a little money," he said.
"You'd have chopped a whole row by 7:30," said a friend, "but they wouldn't let you start picking cotton all that early, until the dew was off, because it made the cotton weigh more."
It also made the cotton catch fire in the wagons, waiting at the gin.
"Plantation," said Sweetner. "How long it is since I even thought of that word."
At the ballroom a woman said of Meridian:
"A strange place. A strange place."
"It still is," said Bolton, "and it's still home."