Lenora Harris had come home to visit. On a spring day in 1943 she stood along the dirt road of the bus station in Wilson, N.C., with two satchels at her feet and a return ticket to the District in her coat pocket. Cousin Maria was running toward her, arms waving frantically.
"How'd you get home so fast?" Maria shouted.
"Fast?" Lenora asked.
"You didn't hear then," said her cousin, stopping by her side. "Your papa died this morning."
The funeral of Hughley Williams was on Sunday. That night, 11 of the 12 Williams children--four having returned from new homes in the District--and their mother, Ada Dew Williams, gathered around the large table in their three-room farmhouse in a somber reunion that marked the end of the family's rural way of life. One year later, all but two family members had left the farm for--as Ada Dew's son James Williams, 61, puts it--"the bright lights and riches of Washington."
Last Sunday afternoon, more than 100 members of the Williams family--including teachers, nurses, youth counselors, computer programers, college students, truck drivers, ministers and federal employes--gathered in Hillcrest Heights, Md., to celebrate Ada Dew Williams' 100th birthday. Members of six generations of Williams' family convened from Connecticut, North Carolina and the Washington area to reminisce and feast heartily in the spacious suburban home of Ada's granddaughter, Julia Clark.
"We decided a long time ago that we would reunite every year for a happy time," said Lenora Harris, 74, a member of the second generation of Williams' six-generation line. "Not just for funerals, like a lot of families."
At a time when many social critics say families in general and black families in particular have been disintegrating, the Williams clan has proven very resilient. Since 1943, Ada Dew Williams' descendants--who now number more than 150--have met once a year.
Ada Dew Williams, who now has lived in the District for 39 years, gave birth to each of her 12 children in her frame farmhouse in Wilson. Her mother served as midwife at most of the births, just as Williams delivered one of her own granddaughters, Lenora Harris' daughter Ada.
Lenora's older sister Lucy Body, 79, who lives in Northeast, remembers Ada Harris' birth as a special break from the daily farm chores of plying the mule cart, pulling corn stalks and picking cotton in fields surrounding the house.
"We stopped work and went to the neighbors' house when Ada was being born," Body recalled. "And then, when we heard the word, we ran down the wagon path and shortcut over the tobacco field. By the time we got there the baby was all clean and pretty, with Lenora holding her in a blanket. Work was much easier on the days when there were births."
Lenora Harris left Ada, by then a teen-ager, and four younger children behind when she left Wilson for the District, which she envisioned as "a city of opportunity."
For six years, Harris worked as a live-in maid for a U.S. Army major in Chevy Chase while her husband lived with a friend and worked as a street cleaner. The couple saved their combined earnings until they were able to rent an apartment in Northwest Washington on, as Harris says, "a small ghetto street where the blacks went their way and the whites went theirs. For us, it wasn't frustrating being black, it was just taken for granted there were certain things we couldn't do."
For Harris' daughter, Ada Harris Werts, now 50, the transition from rural black community to segregated city was not as easy. She was a dreamy 19-year-old with a 6-month-old baby named Joan when she rejoined her mother in the District in 1951.
"I couldn't wait to get to Washington. In the country I had read stories about all the happy people meeting at soda fountains, listening to radios and reading magazines in drugstores," Werts said. "I had plans of becoming a secretary, but as it turned out the best job I could get was busing dishes" in a 14th Street cafeteria.
Werts said she had her first exposure to racial prejudice her first week in the District, when a man ordered her to move to the rear of an H Street trolley. "I learned fast what the rules of the city were," Werts said. "And so did my children."
Joan Werts Parks, 32, was the first of Ada Dew Williams' great-granddaughters to be raised in the District. As a child she lived on Orleans Place NE, where, she says, "Your neighbor would spank you as fast as your mother. It was a very close-knit neighborhood, very safe. Now, I'd be afraid to walk down that street by myself."
Parks and most of Williams' great-grandchildren spent their childhood summers in Wilson with Sarah Cleo Bynum, 59, one of two Williams children who remained in Wilson after their father's death. The old farmhouse had been replaced by a modern, split-level ranch house, and the mule cart and dirt road had given way to a '77 Chevrolet and asphalt. But to the city-born generation, Wilson was still "the country."
To the Williams family, the suburbs of Maryland have offered a comfortable compromise between the country and the city. Lenora Harris and her daughter Ada Werts live in Seat Pleasant; Joan Parks and her daughter Regina Parks Williams, 19, live in Capitol Heights. All four agree that Maryland is a peaceful relief from the "noisy, crime-ridden" District.
As Sunday's birthday celebration reached a boisterous "Happy Birthday" crescendo in the crowded living room, Regina stood outside on the front porch with her two children, Yukia, 3, and Maurice, 1--the sixth generation. Regina said she felt a little uncomfortable with all the talk of old times and North Carolina farm life. She spends most days watching soap operas; at night she goes to movies or the Black Crystal Club. When she last visited Wilson five years ago, she spent most of her time picking figs and wishing she were back in the city.