Sit a spell with the two sisters from Virginia -- octogenerians and matriarchs of three generations -- and they will tell you "there used to be a time . . . . "

And eventually they will tell how blacks back then had table talk -- mother and father and children sitting and just talking. And, of course, "we believed in church and we believed in God."

Those were different times, harder times in many ways. But the Richmond-bred sisters, Irene Virginia Edwards, 85, and Laura Craddock, 82, remember them for the communion it brought to black families.

A bus from Richmond brought the sisters yesterday to the south side of the Washington Monument, where they joined several thousand people who took part in the fifth annual Black Family Reunion.

The sisters, members of long-standing with the reunion's organizer, the National Council of Negro Women, said the event is what's needed to set things right.

Families today, Edwards said, are divided. "Dope and stuff have ruined things. No such stuff as dope when we were coming.

"There used to be a time, if I was a child and did something wrong, another would correct me and tell my mother. No more."

Said Craddock: "If you step on my toes, I'll step on your toes. That's what they say now. We tell them how it used to be and they say, 'It's a new day now.' "

In tents and on leaflets, in books and in song, the organizers and sponsors of the weekend reunion proclaimed the importance of black history, tradition and culture.

There were busloads from Brooklyn, caravans from the Carolinas and car pools from throughout the metropolitan area.

The different programs included an exhibit on the African diaspora, a game show on African-American heritage and a tent dedicated exclusively to a discussion on family values.

It was a place to learn a history that until recently was seldom taught, and even now is limited.

An exhibit on black contributions included short biographies of William H. Hastie, the first black federal judge; Toussaint L'Ouverture, liberator of Haiti; Jan Matzelinger, inventor of a machine that revolutionized the shoe-manufacturing industry; and Clara Frye, a Florida nurse who invented something called a "combination bed, air and bed pan."

It was in the tent on family values where, during a call for personal experiences, Joanna Banks, 47, stepped to a microphone and reminded people that once, "The worst thing you could say is, 'Go back to Africa.' "

Banks said afterward that the change in attitude -- while far from complete -- is significant.

But she said she is still troubled, and surprised, by "little kids who say 'black' as something negative," and by mothers and fathers who buy their children white dolls for Christmas.

The dolls are a sensitive issue for Banks, 47, an education specialist at the Anacostia Museum.

As a child in Kentucky, she once asked her mother for a black doll, and what occurred in Louisville almost four decades ago still has repercussions.

"We went into a hardware store and she asked the owner if he had a Negro doll -- my mother would never say colored," Banks said.

"He said yes, and he took us to the back and he showed us a mammy doll pushing a carriage with a white baby in it. My mother wrapped herself with moral indignation and said, 'I will not buy that doll for my child.' "

The advent of black dolls did not occur until she was 32, but ever since, her mother has given her one as a present.

Banks' Afro-centric life -- "some people say I'm obsessed with my blackness" -- includes more than 3,000 books and a collection of African American art and artifacts.

"I wouldn't be anything but an African American woman," said Banks. "I'm really happy about that."

The festival, which features ethnic entertainment and celebrity guests, will run from noon until dark today.