Most Saturdays, Ellie Carter and her husband, Ted, are grocery shopping, finishing leftover office work on the family computer or busing their three younger children to basketball games, cheerleading practices or friends' houses.
But the Germantown couple set yesterday aside as a family day to go to Washington's 14th annual Black Family Reunion. They spent the afternoon lounging in chairs, listening to gospel and reggae music and eating fried fish and chicken as two of their four children and a granddaughter frolicked in the grass at the Washington Monument.
"We both have so much on us with our work schedules and running here and there with the kids," said Ellie Carter, 40, who works at least 55 hours a week as a housing and mortgage administrator for Fannie Mae. "Sometimes we get so caught up in things. This gives you an outlet for quality family time."
The family reunion, which continues today at noon, offers a mix of food, entertainment, free health screenings and oodles of corporate giveaways that range from hair spray and cans of cat and dog food to laxatives. Also on display are dozens of exhibits, including African American art and videos, that depict conditions on slave boats coming from Africa and describe how slaves escaped using the Underground Railroad.
Organizers from the National Council of Negro Women, which originated the reunion, said they expect 50,000 people from the Washington region and as far as New York to attend the two-day celebration.
"This is a cultural event that we want people to come in and bond and be informed and enlightened when they leave," said Kitty Chaney, a former president of one of the group's chapters. "This isn't just for black people; it's for everybody. That's what our theme is: to leave no one behind."
Willie E.P. Bowman, of the Bronx, N.Y., said she was disappointed when she couldn't find room for three of her grandchildren on a 20-seat bus her National Council of Negro Women chapter chartered for the trip to Washington.
"I felt so bad: They were sold out, and I had to leave my other grandbabies at home," said Bowman, as one of her grandchildren, 5-year-old Essence, tugged on her dress to head to a face-painting tent. "This is my event. I always come with my grandkids. I want them to see and know their heritage."
Friends who came on the bus with her agreed. They have been attending the event together for at least five years.
"It's our tradition," said Betty Manor, 73, of New York.
"You can feel the spirit here," her friend Hellen Mayfield, 53, added. "It's inspirational."
For some, it was also practical. The free health screenings included tests for diabetes, colon cancer and blood pressure.
"I always know I have to watch my blood pressure, so I saw they were doing it and thought I might as well stop in," said Anita Gavin, 78, as a volunteer squeezed her arm.
"Yup! I knew it was going to be on up there," Gavin added after she was told her blood pressure was well over the norm. The volunteer's advice: Take it easy and walk slowly. "I will," Gavin shouted over her shoulder as she left the tent.
A few booths down, Rejalitta Evans, 40, dragged into the health tent by her two teenage sons, got a slight scolding from a dental technician. Recommended treatment: Get four teeth in the back pulled and floss more.
"My blood pressure was perfect," Evans said. "My vision was okay. My weight was so-so, and now I get this. My teeth aren't so good."
Evans, who lives in Southeast Washington and is a paralegal in a domestic violence center, offered this excuse: "There's so many other things to think about every day, you just neglect yourself."
As she walked out of the tent to catch up to her sons--who had moved on to get food and drinks--Evans caught the eye of a gray-haired woman waiting in a line for a back and neck massage.
The woman reached out and touched Evans's arm.
"I know that smile," said Muriel Atkins, 65, a retired science teacher. "You were in my class at Carter G. Woodson Middle School. I couldn't forget you. You were quite an active one. Always wanting to be the leader."
"My, oh, my," Evans laughed, as the two hugged. "I haven't seen you in years. You look just the same. You haven't changed a bit."
"This is really beautiful," Atkins said, smiling. "This is what a reunion of folks is all about."