Some people showed up at the Tenleytown homecoming picnic last Saturday to socialize, greeting friends with hand slaps and kisses, trading news and gossip enthusiastically. Others came to muse in the shade of a leafy tree, accompanied only by a cold beer and their memories.
All in all, nearly a hundred people--toddlers and old men with walking sticks, young married couples and dizzy teen-agers--drifted in to Fort Reno Park to commemorate the now-vanished neighborhood that was the home of their childhood or the home of their parents and grandparents.
Originally a crossroads settlement that sprang up at the intersection of River Road and another major turnpike that became Wisconsin Avenue, Tenleytown was named for blacksmith John Tenley who operated his shop there in the 1790s.
Former slaves populated the area after the Civil War, settling near Fort Reno, as they did around other Union Army battlements. The community they formed had its peak around the turn of the century and thrived until the 1920s when a federal purchase of the land for a park at Fort Reno scattered many of them.
Although most of black Tenleytown was dispersed by the mid-1940s, some remnants remained until the early 1970s when renovation of the century-old rowhouses into more expensive properties displaced the last few families.
But the community was not broken up. Church and family ties bound and still bind the former neighbors.
"One year somebody died," said Charles Arthur, remembering how the picnic tradition started in the late 1960s. "And we all went to the funeral, And while we were there somebody--I can't remember who--said, 'Why are we always getting together for something sad? Let us get together for something happy.' And the date was set for the second Saturday in September. First, we started getting together in somebody's home, but then it got so large we moved out here."
With his wife, Geneva, Charles Arthur is one of the principal organizers of the yearly reunions, sending out letters to former neighbors and providing some of the supplies.
"Hi, Calvin! How you doin'?" Geneva Arthur, who left her Fort Reno house half a century ago, greeted a former neighbor coming into the picnic area. As she traded kisses with him, Charles Arthur helped the newcomer's family unload platters of food, coolers and deck chairs in quantities sufficient for the meanest desert island.
"Well, Wolf, it's nice to see you here," Arthur said to another arrival. While Lorenzo (Wolf) Wright, 78, walked across the field, Geneva Arthur set up a portable rocking chair for him. "Yeah, I got some arthritis," he said mildly. But he had taken a bus and walked across the park to be there.
The breezes died and even the grass seemed to wilt as the temperature climbed to a record-breaking 98 degrees, but under the roofs that shaded the picnic tables, spirits soared and talk came faster as the platters of corn pudding, baked chicken, crab salad, potato salad and ribs slowly filled the tables.
"This park is all right with me now, I guess," said Everett (Baby) Masterson, who found it painful to leave when the sister he lived with was priced out of the area. Others had mixed memories of the days when their homes had neither running water nor electricity and when a city street divided their neighborhood from the homes reserved for whites.
"Oh, but when we were young we got along so much better on the little we had," Hilda Marshall said. "We didn't have to go to the grocery store for nothing. There were peaches and pear trees and grapes in our back yard. And family life was better. Nothing was greater for us than the family."
Marshall looked around her. "Say, where is my girl?" she asked no one in particular as she looked for her daughter, Caroline Brady. "Baby, you had something to eat yet?" Caroline took pictures as her mother proudly pointed out her other daughter and son to a visitor.
"You see what I told you?" Charles Arthur said."We're all family here."