Family history for Jerome Bell has been a shadowy picture of the hot and sweaty South, of descendants of slaves working the coarse dirt that lay between two strong rivers, of a white antebellum house where brown-skinned people gathered to plot their dreams.

Seen through the eyes of his great-aunt Cordia, it was all Bell knew of his past.

This weekend, the family history came into sharper focus as more than 800 of Bell's relatives from across the country gathered at the Mayflower Stouffer Hotel for the 21st annual reunion of the Martin family of Jenkinsville, S.C.

"It is inspiring to me," said Bell, 36, of Lanham, a C&P Telephone Co. engineer who helped organize this year's reunion. "There is so much I didn't know."

The three-day reunion was more than just a celebration of one family that can boast a number of lawyers, doctors, judges, elected officials and the next astronaut scheduled to pilot a space shuttle. The history of the Martins reflects the achievements of blacks in this country, family members said. The reunion, held every year to coincide with the celebration of the nation's birthday, is also a triumph over the destruction of the history of black families wrought by slavery.

"So few black families can go beyond their grandparents. There is a wall there," said Benjamin Martin, one of the country's first black Episcopal bishops. "We've been able to penetrate the curtain."

The Martins' American journey began in 1799, 23 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, when a ship set sail from West Africa for the United States. Crammed in the ship's bowels was a young woman from a small fishing village who was destined to be sold in the Charleston slave market to John Martin, a planter from Fairfield County, S.C. Family genealogist Gladys Harper believes that the young woman was the start of the black Martin family lineage.

For the next 90 years, the descendants of the West African woman worked on or near the Martin Plantation. But unlike the fate of most black families during slavery, very few of them were sold out of the area. Three years after the Civil War ended, Robert M. Martin, a descendant of the white planter John Martin, granted about 600 acres to four of his former slaves.

It was from those modest landholdings that the Martin family began to prosper. During Reconstruction, the Martins wheeled and dealed cotton and land until they owned most of the land between the Little River and Broad River near Jenkinsville. They served in the state Senate and state House of Representatives and on the county commission. They founded the county's first black church, Whitehall AME Church.

"They were highly respected in the white community" after slavery ended, Harper said. "They enjoyed all the benefits and resources in the white community without reservation. There were so many of them that the area became known as Martin Town.

"There was a support base there in Jenkinsville," said Harper, who is a Martin family member. "Everyone knew if there was a problem, there were others there to help. All social and educational activities centered around the church. It gave a sense that this was our place."

At the turn of the century, the family began to scatter, following the lure of industrial jobs in the North. They worked in the coal mines and steel mills of Pennsylvania and automobile factories in Michigan. During World War II, the first of many Martins arrived in Washington in search of jobs with the federal government. There are about 200 descendants of the Martin family in the Washington area today.

As the family grew, so did a need to stay together.

In 1966, a small group of family members gathered at a member's home in Hampton, Va., where the talk turned to holding something bigger that would bring together the entire family. More people went the next year to a gathering in Morristown, N.J., and even more went in 1968 to Detroit.

"The reunions make people more cognizant of their heritage, and interest them in finding their roots," said Zona Martin of Darlington, S.C. "When we go to these hotels, they are aware that a black family can stick together."

In the past six years, as the reunion has moved from New York to Pittsburgh to Columbia, S.C., to Washington, the gathering has come to resemble more of a convention than a family get-together. More than 1,500 Martins met in Detroit in 1982, and 900 were in Pittsburgh last year.

Chefs at the Mayflower Hotel prepared 250 pounds of chicken, 150 pounds of potatoes, and 500 chocolate mousse desserts for yesterday's family dinner.

Preparations for the Washington celebration began in December with the first of monthly meetings of the family's 50-member organizing committee. There was a subcommittee to organize tours, one to put on work sessions on health issues such as AIDS and caring for the elderly, and a finance committee to raise the estimated $30,000 cost of the reunion, much of which was borne by the approximately 30 families living in the Washington area and the $45-a-person registration fee.

But the most important part of the reunion each year is the session on family history, in which the young are told what it means to belong to the Martin family, and the introduction of family celebrities such as astronaut Charles F. Bolden and Ralph Carter, who played the role of Michael on the television show "Good Times."

"The reunion brings about love, compassion, confidence and intellectual curiosity," said Juanita Thornton, 75, of the District, honorary chairwoman of the reunion. "It shows the black family as something other than being involved with drugs or {suffering from} infant mortality. It certainly demonstrates to the young people that success is possible."