Two unrelated, Southern-based organizations converged on Washington last weekend to revel in the mainstays of the reunion ritual: a few speeches, a few luncheons, a little dancing, a little partying and a lot of reminiscing.
One group, the Kentucky Rendezvous Inc., is a close-knit social club of 400 black Kentucky natives who filed in from 14 city chapters and filled 200 rooms in the Hyatt Regency Hotel. The other group, the Tuskegee Institute Alumni Association, set up displays, awarded certificates and weighed the plight of historic black colleges during its 13th triennal convention at the Washington Hilton Hotel.
Both reunions brought together generations of strugglers and survivors who banded together decades before blacks could even sit in the front of a public bus.
The annual Kentucky Rendezvous, for example, grew out of an informal get-together thrown by a dozen homesick trainees placed in a federally run radio technology school in Philadelphia during World War II.
"We were in a strange land," recalled Carl Williams, one of the 13 founders. "So we decided to get together on Easter Monday, 1943, at Catherine's Postal Car -- just the fellas, you know. They say we're clannish anyway. Every year we did that and, eventually, we brought the wives and kids in on it."
Washington native Elaine Mitchell said she wouldn't be a "Kentuckian" had she given up her pursuit of a young Navy department worker who became her husband. That was Starling Hatchett, a Kentuckian who, like thousands of other young, black Southerners, migrated to Washington during World War II to snag a government job.
In 1943, Mitchell had just graduated from Dunbar High School and landed a job at the Census Bureau, not far from Hatchett's work site. Their paths crossed in the lunch line of the Census Bureau's cafeteria. Eventually, Mitchell said, "he got tired of me chasing after him, so he married me."
Twenty-one years later, Mitchell found herself among the charter members of the Washington branch of Kentucky Rendezvous Inc., which held its first official meeting at Fred Waters Catering Salon at 14th and Quincy streets NW.
It was actually an informal get-together of her husband's longtime Kentucky friends who decided to formally charter their friendship, to hold meetings once a month at a club member's home and to participate in the national organization's yearly big event: the Rendezvous.
Washingtonian Edward DeLoach, a systems analyst at the Department of Energy, said he, too, joined the 21-member local chapter because the "people were hospitable, amiable, friendly -- you name it."
"Besides, he married into a nice family from Kentucky," interjected his wife Julia, a retired accounting technician at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
An estimated 100 known black Kentuckians live in the metropolitan area, said Morgan Washington, president of the Washington chapter of the Rendezvous.
But Julia DeLoach said she rarely runs into any of them outside of the club. Rather, she joked, "When I tell people I'm from Kentucky, they say, 'Why, I didn't even know they had black people in Kentucky!' "
She and her husband have trekked to every Rendezvous but one for the past 15 years. "This is a good one," she said, after making the rounds from table to table. "Most of them are good, but we've been to some lousy ones, too."
Some might say this one was particularly good, in fact, because Mayor Marion Barry not only showed up to address the delegation Saturday night but also proclaimed last Friday "Kentucky Rendezvous Day."
Others, however, might retain a more lingering memory of that night's raucous entertainment, courtesy of "Disco Granny," an exotic dancer who donned a gray wig, old coat, cane and imitation bifocals and proceeded to peel her layers of ragged old clothes, gyrating her pelvis before approving male Kentuckians.
Across town at the Washington Hilton, 400 faithful Tuskegeans were singing their alma mater, with the help of printed programs, in the first of a series of convention socials.
The century old Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala., was founded by Booker T. Washington on the basis of his now-historic pragmatism: "To pull blacks up from the bootstraps when they didn't even have boots," said Velma Blackwell, the school's vice president for development.
She followed up on that survival theme Friday afternoon when she helped hand out awards and certificates to alumni chapters that contributed the most to the school's fund raising.
One by one, they made their way to the foot of the platform to get the certificate and a handshake from Blackwell. At one point, it seemed more awardees were crowded behind Blackwell than there were spectators.
"Theodore Green of Chicago!" shouted the announcer.
"Go ahead, Ted," chimed the delegates at his table.
"Robert Lloyd of Cleveland!"
"Here he is," answered his friends from across the room as if the announcer could hear them.
"Betty Steele of Tuskegee!"
"I haven't seen her in ages," murmured one woman who already had received her certificate.
Those roommates and classmates who did meet up with one another slipped inevitably into the typical "remember when" chats.
"Back in those days," began Julia Glover, a 1952 graduate, "freshmen girls had to be in by 7 p.m. Plus, we had this old woman, honey, I don't know what she was."
"She was a vigilante, that's what she was," answered classmate Howard Lawson from across the table.
"Whenever she saw a fella with his arm around a girl she'd say, 'If the young lady is sick, we'll take her to the doctor.' Of course, that didn't keep anybody from doing that."
Another Tuskegee graduate, Robert Lloyd, who came to the college in 1926, remembers the days when he interrupted his studies to help his family earn money on their farm in Tunica, Miss.
"We'd go to school for two months in the summer while waiting for the cotton to open up," he explained. "Then we'd start picking it. And after we finished picking the cotton, we'd go back to school for two more months until it was time to start plowing again."
Lloyd said he was the first in his family to finish high school. His mother Alice barely completed grammar school, and his father Albert just learned to read and write. "Mother always wanted us to 'get a good schooling,' " he said. "I didn't want to let her down."
After college, he went to Cleveland, where he works as an industrial photographer and manages to contribute $10 a month to his alma mater. Lloyd was one of the dozens of alumni called to the platform for an award that day.
Del. Walter Fauntroy (D-D.C.), one of the luncheon's scheduled speakers, almost didn't make it to the ceremonies. He arrived 45 minutes late with a ready-made excuse. "I thought this was just another alumni meeting," he said with a smile. "When I heard it was Tuskegee, I said, 'Drop everything.' "