For a moment, Rebecca Brooks looked confused as she tried to place the familiar-looking woman standing before her.

Then, with a shriek, Brooks threw up her hands. "Cousin Fredericka! Look at you!"

Another link had been forged, or in this case reforged, in the long line of the Quander family of Virginia and Pennsylvania.

And on Sunday afternoon in Alexandria, at the family's 56th annual reunions, dozens upon dozens of new links were forged.

Cousins fell into each other's arms with hugs, kisses and exclamations of delight. Small children scampered underfoot before being caught by numerous aunts and uncles who pinched their cheeks or swung them in the air with a hearty laugh. Teen-agers tore into mountains of fried chicken and baked ham covered with pineapple-raisin sauce. In the corners of the plush red room at the Department Progressive Club, the family elders were an oral Book of Genesis, ticking off long lists of "begats" to awestruck listeners.

The Quanders regard themselves as one of the largest and oldest black families in the United States. And like many American families with a lineage reaching back several centuries, the Quanders have a distinguished list of alumni: Nellie Quander founded the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, which now has more than 65,000 members; Dr. John Quander was one of the first graduates of Howard University Medical School, and John Edward Quander founded a black-owned bank in New York.

"You can sweep all that prestige stuff under the rug," said Rebecca Brooks, of Woodlawn, whose grandmother, Susannah Qaunder, organized the first reunion in 1926. "The important thing is that we are a strong family with pride and dignity. We are very close like all families should be close. Our children have their family behind them and relatives to look up to."

Brooks attended that first reunion when she was 7 and has only missed two family gatherings since then.

The Virginia-Pennsylvania Quanders have traced their beginnings to one Henry Quando and his wife Margaret Pugg, slaves who were freed in the 1684 will of Henry Addams, of Maryland. In 1695 a Henry Quandooa leased a tract in what was then Charles County, Md., for 99 years. Family members say southern drawls changed Quando to Quander in the early 1800s.

"We believe Henry or his father came from the Fanti Tribe in what is now Ghana," said Rohulamin Quander, 38, a Washington lawyer. "I talked with a Ghanian ambassador who told me there are Kwandas living there to this day."

The major Virginia link comes from Nancy Quander, a slave at George Washington's Mount Vernon estate, who was freed after Washington's death in 1799. Quander family history, passed down orally over the years, describes the Virginia Quanders as descendants of Nancy Quander and one of Washington's brothers.

Through the years, the ties to the family founders have become complicated, and trying to sort out the various ancestors can be confusing at best. But nearly every one of the 130 family members at last weekend's reunion could point to his branch of the now-massive family tree.

"I heard about this reunion and I bugged my mom to bring us out for one," said Reginald Reaves, 17, of Alameda, Calif.

Reaves said his father, who died in 1969, was a descendent of Louis Quander, who bought land along Quander Road in Alexandria in 1846.

"I think it's great to have this family and all these interesting relatives," Reaves said. We have a road and a school Quander Road School named after us. It makes me feel good."

"So many black families lost track of each other because they moved off their land or didn't own any in the first place," said his uncle, Ronald Reaves, 40, of Alexandria. "I think the family is the most important thing you can have. It gives our young people identity. We have stayed together because we kept our land."

There are, indeed, still Quanders along Quander Road. "Everywhere you look, there is a Quander," said Roberta Quander, who lives in one of the original family houses on Quander Road. "You just get used to it."

In fact, there are so many Quanders around Washington and Virginia that the family has split into several branches over the years, dominated by the Virginia-Pennsylvania clan and the Washington-Maryland clan. There is some animosity between the two groups. The Virginia family tends to look at the Washington members as a fringe group that left the land for the big city. Some Washington members say the Virginia-Pennsylvania group is cool and aloof.

"They read about us in the newpapers," said Rebecca Brooks. "We are related, of course, but we don't really know them. They are strangers to us."

Last weekend, the Pennsylvania-Virginia Quanders voted to incorporate and approved their first constitution.

"I don't mean to say anything bad about anyone, but we were sort of forced into doing it by groups that wanted to become part of us," said Rebecca Brooks' son, 42-year-old Bernard, who is the family historian for Pennsylvania-Virginia Quanders. "We have scholarships and benefits, so it's easier to be incorporated legally."

There is also the question of the books. Both sides of the family are planning to publish their history.

Bernard Brooks, an illustrator for Howard University who lives in Northwest Washington, is spearheading a compilation of family reunion minutes, which he hopes to sell. "It's 56 years of a family growing and meeting together every year," he said. Joseph B. Ross, who was with the National Archives for 23 years and helped Alex Haley in the early stages of his research, said he is guiding Brooks in his attempts to trace the family.

Meanwhile, Rohulamin Quander is working on a family genealogy, which he also hopes to market. "It will take a while," he said in a telephone interview. "We don't have an unbroken chain from the first Quander slave in Maryland to where I'm sitting in my air-conditioned office. But I think we have a powerful story."

Vi Bostic, a member of the Virginia-Pennsylvania branch, spoke tentatively of a Quander family gathering scheduled for 1984, the tricentennial of the first written record of Henry Quando, that would unite all branches of the family.

At the Alexandria reunion, a Quander was hard to find since most of the Virginia-Pennsylvania clan descended through the female line and have last names such as Harmon, Mitchell and Brooks. But family members spoke with pride about their Quander heritage.

"When I was a little girl, I used to sit at these reunions and listen to all the tales about my relatives and how they became landowners when there was still slavery," said Bostic, 40, who lives in Philadelphia. "I would like to know more, meet other family members who can fit in the missing pieces of our family history. I think it's a story my family should know, that everyone should know."