Hot dogs were sizzling on the grill, children were playing ball, relatives were picking over a table loaded with food and over everything hung the sweet aroma of fried fish, hot and fresh from a jury-rigged deep fryer made of little more than a burner and a propane tank.
The Hairstons had come to Frederick, and the fish was going fast.
"It's about 20, 25 pounds already, and you can't keep it in the pan," said Ronald Riddle, a family member.
The entire Hairston clan, descended from a prosperous slave-owning family numbering in the hundreds and the subject of a book and documentaries, gathers each Labor Day. But this branch of the family, who trace their lineage to the Marrowbone plantation owned by a Hairston near Martinsville, Va., has its reunion every July.
"It's something to look forward to once a year," said Amanda "Teddy" King, 83, formerly Hairston, of Martinsville.
Their reunion, which has occurred for 32 years -- in all but one, on the second weekend in July -- was hosted this year in a subdivision north of Frederick by A. Renee "Trudy" Smith (the former Gertrude Hairston). Tents, swing sets for children and tables with food were laid out under a patchy sky. Soft jazz played from a radio. The traditional Friday evening fish fry -- tended by Riddle, a retired physical-education teacher from Green Coast Springs, Fla. -- signaled that the festivities were well under way.
They arrived from New York state, California, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and elsewhere, some in buses. They wore black-and-white T-shirts saying "The 32nd Annual Hairston Reunion: American Treasure in Black and White," which were decorated with elephants, symbols of good luck.
On Friday, the main event was the fish fry and a bowling tournament at some local lanes. Family members planned an all-day picnic yesterday, with raffles, drawings and perhaps a trip to Charles Town, W.Va., to gamble, Smith said.
"They like to gamble," she explained.
Smith, who runs a booking agency for musicians, was born in Columbus, Ohio, the daughter of Clem "Speedy" Hairston. She said her family has managed, despite its roots in slavery and the shadow of Jim Crow laws, to achieve success in business and the arts. Among its members was the late Jester Hairston, who starred as Rolly Forbes in the TV sitcom "Amen," she said.
"I think we might be the only black family in America who got their 40 acres and a mule," said Smith, 60.
The Hairston clan traces its roots to Peter the Immigrant, a Scotsman who fled his native land after participating in a failed uprising against English rule in the early 18th century, according to "The Hairstons," a 1999 book by Henry Wiencek, a Virginia writer. After spending time in Ireland, Peter Hairston arrived in the New World with his family, made his way to Virginia and prospered as a slave-holding tobacco grower. So did his children, and their children's children.
An 1851 Richmond newspaper article cited by Wiencek called Peter's descendant Samuel Hairston of Oak Hill the richest man in the commonwealth and perhaps in all of the U.S., with land and slaves worth $5 million. In the antebellum South, the family owned 45 plantations in four states and an estimated 10,000 slaves. Among their relatives were Lt. Gen Jubal A. Early and Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, the dashing cavalry officer, both of the Confederate army.
Like European royalty, the Hairstons sometimes married one another to consolidate their holdings, Wiencek writes. And the slave masters begot children with their slaves, creating a clan of black, white and brown.
"It looks like the United Nations," Smith said.
On Friday afternoon, three of the family elders -- Tom Hairston, 95, of Youngstown, Ohio; Earlie Hairston, 82, of Ridgeway; and Henry Hairston, 77, of Martinsville, Va., brothers in a family of 11 children -- lounged in lawn chairs under a silver maple tree, doing what Hairstons do at these things.
"We just get together, talk, eat, drink. We don't hide anything like some people," Henry Hairston said.
Tom Hairston agreed. "That's it," he said.
Then they got to reminiscing about the family's history and chatting about whatever else came to mind.
Henry Hairston, for example, traversed a world of topics: growing up in Virginia when state-decreed segregation prevented him from getting an education past the eighth grade ("I have a master's degree in street life," he says); the status of integration and a necessity for reparations for slavery ("I believe in segregation, financially . . . because the white will never accept black. Now that we have put them together, and it hasn't worked, why not put it back?"); ending the drug war through the use of televised executions ("I'm telling you, we wouldn't kill 12 on national TV"); and the state of the economy ("When it's building houses, the economy is good. That's all you need to know.")
His elder brothers listened, sometimes agreeing, sometimes not. And then they turned to family lore and how their grandparents had lived as slaves on the plantation in Martinsville. For example, they told how their grandmother after being sold to another planter at age 9, sneaked back to Virginia, through country that was still hostile to blacks after slavery ended, in order to marry their grandfather. They chuckled about how their grandfather, as a slave, was able to avoid doing the hard labor of others.
And they reflected on the custom of the reunion itself.
"It started as a funeral," Henry Hairston said as he sipped a beer. "Some family member had died, and we decided as a family that we wanted to get together some other way besides a funeral."