As it is told, Febi, a black slave woman, served her master's household well. As his mistress, she borned unto him a son named Willie Morgan in Edgefield, S.C. --From the Morgan family album
Willie Morgan, the only son of his slavemaster father, was born around 1800 on the kitchen floor of a South Carolina plantation. He grew up there and, according to family lore, spawned a clan that put down deep roots in that state before it spread out to many other parts of the country.
Last weekend 300 of Willie Morgan's descendants gathered in Washington to pay homage to their ancestors, to reminisce and to rekindle kinship bonds frayed by time and distance.
Author Alex Haley made genealogy tracing popular with the "Roots" novel and television series that sent many black Americans searching for their ancestry in Southern counties and courthouse archives and inspired some white Americans to seek out their origins in Europe.
But for the Morgans--a family that through 10 generations faithfully recorded its births, deaths and marriages in the traditional census keeper, the family Bible--this was the first organized reunion.
"We just got tired of always meeting at funerals," said the Rev. Mary Staley Manor, 48, a great-granddaughter of Coleman Morgan and a minister of Love Temple, a Northwest Washington church. It was at the wake of her older brother, Henry Staley, several years ago, that she turned to another brother, Lonnie, and said, "We should get together."
And they did. After a few years of talking about it they spent eight months organizing and raising money. Manor and her sisters, Bonnie Zellars, a speech therapist, and Ivory Leslie, a supermarket meatcutter, all District residents, guided the preparations in Washington with long-distance support from many out-of-town relatives.
They came from Connecticut and California, from Indiana and Arkansas and--by the score--from South Carolina, to join the dozens of relatives in the Washington branch of the family.
All traced their lineage to Willie's oldest son, Coleman Morgan, and his wife, Caroline Kenner Morgan. Both the grandchildren of slave owners, he a minister and she the daughter of a minister, the Morgans were landowning farmers who raised 10 children. After emancipation they established the family homestead and a still-active community church in the little town of Salley, in Aiken County, S.C.
It was a weekend-long celebration, beginning with a five-hour picnic on Saturday. Morgan descendants filled a large grassy grove in Sligo Creek Park, laughing, praying, embracing and stuffing themselves on a homemade Southern-style feast of fried chicken, greens and barbecued ribs--all spiced with bits of friendly family gossip.
They spanned six generations from the oldest, Mary Etta Trowell, 82, of Salley, S.C., a granddaughter of Coleman and Caroline, to the youngest, 4-month-old Maurice Passmore Jr. of the District.
Many of them wore T-shirts decorated with the outline of a broad-limbed tree and the words "Descendants of Coleman and Caroline Kenner Morgan. Six generations gather in love--July 1982."
The highlight of the weekend, however, was a Saturday night banquet in a rented hall at the Silver Spring Holiday Inn where the atmosphere was heavy with familial warmth and emotion.
"If we take the love that Caroline and Coleman gave us and be grateful for it in the fashion that they taught us . . . we can look back and look at their accomplishments and . . . hope people will say, 'There goes a good person,' " Manor said in tribute to her forebears. She urged the generations of Morgans to "get on the right track so we can leave a legacy so that this name can stand for something when the family passes away."
Barbara J. Hughes of Florida, a great-granddaughter of the honored couple, recited a family history that described Coleman Morgan as "a kind sharecropper and a faithful husband who died in 1904," and Caroline as "a fine woman" who helped her husband purchase 200 acres of land in Salley, some of which is still in family hands. Caroline, who lived until 1917, was remembered by several of her older grandchildren.
There were stories extolling the Morgans' generous and tolerant acts through the decades--how they adopted orphaned children of neighbors and took special care of their own handicapped kin.
Hughes said the couple had 67 grandchildren, 150 great-grandchildren and a multitude of great-great-grandchildren. "We salute you," she said, bursting into tears and getting a standing ovation from her relatives.
Another granddaughter, Emma Lloyd Roper, 80, of Brooklyn, N.Y., praised Coleman Morgan's character and bearing. "At home it was kindness, in business it was honesty, in society it was courtesy . . . toward God it was obedience. I'm trying to live like him," she said.
Caroline, she recited, was "a beautiful woman . . . a peaceful woman who loved everyone and lived in the church, and prayed for other people, but she prayed hard that she could keep her family together."
In addition to the weekend's $6,000 budget, raised through a dance and family donations, the Morgans spent many hours of work on their gathering. The work was apparent in a lengthy dinner program of songs, speeches and prayers that continued until past midnight.
For $7.50 family members could buy a copy of the 105-page printed family album illustrated with nearly 300 portraits of Coleman and Caroline's bloodline that displayed full-page ads from Washington carryouts and hairdressers as well as the hometown church in South Carolina.
But the showpiece of the weekend was the Morgan family tree, a 9-by-12 foot linen scroll mounted on bamboo rods and bearing oval-shaped leaves representing 575 Morgans since Caroline and Coleman--each generation distinguished by gold, silver or another color. With blank space for 20 years of Morgans to come, the tree was created especially for the family by Howard University art professor Jeff Donaldson and his students.
In what might have been the contemporary answer to Caroline's prayers of for a united family, her great-great-granddaughter, Ebony Erving, a dainty District 5-year-old in pigtails, recited a poem written for the occasion by Bonnie Zellars: "I want to be able as the days go by, Always to look myself in the eye . . . I want to stand with my head erect I want to deserve all men's respect . . . Whatever happens I want to be. Self-respecting of the tree."
Painted at the base of the tree was the Jerusalem Branch Baptist Church, the home base of the Morgan family in Salley.
Coleman Morgan founded the church in 1900 with several neighboring families, served as its first minister and baptized his 10 children there. He now lies buried beside Caroline in the churchyard near the renovated brick building where Morgans still serve as deacons, ushers and clerks, the lifeblood of the church.
"By the turn of the 19th century, both Coleman and Caroline Kenner Morgan had held high the banner of Christ," read the history in the family album, "consecrated through prayer and their inherited talents as business persons as well as connoisseurs of the finest things in life for their family, motivated by the driving need to keep the Morgan family together . . . Coleman and Caroline Morgan, we, your true descendents pay homage . . . ."
It was a reunion of the living to celebrate the dead, but as in any family, not all was lightness and joy for the assembled Morgans. Manor and her siblings feel a sadness and sense of loss at the memory and the mystery of their maternal uncle Eddie, who left Washington 50 years ago and has not been heard from since.
"I hope that if he'll hear about this [reunion] he'll be inspired to come home or to contact the family," Manor said. "Eddie Morgan, this is your family."