MY FAMILY, AS FAR as we can trace it, began 127 years ago in the tiny eastern North Carolina village of Corapeake, in Holly Grove Township. It was there that my great-grandfather Timothy was born into slavery and later married my great-grandmother Easter.
They had 19 children and their children had 81 children and the family has now grown to some 600 descendants, including teachers, school administrators, dentists, federal employes, accountants, engineers, journalists, ministers, broadcasters, actresses, composers, police officers, beauticians, carpenters and small businessmen.
Last month, more than 300 of us came together for a three-day reunion to celebrate our heritage. It began with two days at a hotel, we booked in Portsmouth, Va., and culminated with a tour of the family homestead and an emotional family service at my great-grandparents" church, New Middle Swamp Baptist, in Holly Grove (population today: 1,336).
To those critics who claim that families in general and black families in particular have been crumbling, I say, on behalf of my family members, it just aint' so.
I am referring to those like historian E. Franklin Frazier, who wrote in 1950: "As the result of family disorganization a large proportion of Negro children and youth have not undergone the socialization which only the family can provide.
"The disorganized families have failed to provide for their emotional needs and have not provided the discipline and habits which are necessary for personality development."
Frazier was followed by Daniel P. Moynihan, who in 1965 sparked much controversy with: "At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family."
Those folks just don't know what they are talking about. My family, and I bet thousands of other black families, side with historians Herbert G. Gutman and Andrew Billingsley.
In "The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom," Gutman pointed out in 1976 that black families have strong, stable networks that have survived from slavery to present. Billingsley in 1968, in "Black Families in White America," stated that the range and variety of black families don't suggest, "as some commentaries hold, that the Negro family is falling apart, but rather that these families are fully capable of surviving by adapting to the historical and contemporary social and economic conditions facing the Negro people."
"How does a people survive in the face of oppression and sharply restricted economic and social support?" Billingsley asked. "There are, of course, numerous ways, but surely one of them is to adapt the most basic of its institutions, the family, to meet the conflicting demands placed on it. In this context, then, the Negro family has proved to be an amazingly resilient institution."
Let's begin with my great-grandparents. My great-grandfather, whom everyone called "Grandpappy Tim," was a short, soft-spoken man who sported long sideburns and a long mixed grey beard. He was separated from his mother at an early age when she was sold to another slave master. Parentless, he was raised by other slaves.
After slavery was abolished, my great-grandfather Timothy continued to work on the plantation, first renting and then owning a 50-acre tract that he tilled until his death.
He met "Grandmammy Easter," a fair-complexioned woman with hair flowing across her shoulders and down her back, when she moved to Holly Grove in the early 1870s from Cypress Chapel, Va., where she had worked as a domestic slave on the Lee Plantation. She twice bore children by the slave master.
Then on one night in the early 1870s, she fled the plantation, taking her two children with her. In 1874, Grandmammy Easter, who smoked a corncob pipe, and my Grandpappy Tim were married.
Besides the two oldest children, they had 17 others, whom they raised in a strict and religious household where hard work and determination were stressed. Everyone had to go to church on Sunday, and whenever the church pastor came for dinner, the children had to wait until the grownups finished and cleared the table before they could eat. My great-grandfather made the wine for church communion and his wife made the bread.
Although neither of my great-grandparents had any formal education, they encouraged their children to get as much schooling as possible. All their children attended grade school and went as far as they could go until they had to leave school to help on the farm.
My great-grandfather was a strong disciplinarian. He not only kept his children in line, but didn't hesitate to do the same for his children's children. "He'd say, 'Go get yourself a whip,'" one victim recalled at the reunion. "And he didn't beat the clothes. He made you take them off."
My great-grandparents were married 60 years when my great-grandfather died in 1934. My great-grandmother never remarried and died in 1938. Not exactly your disintegrating family.
They left an able clan that continued many of their traditions, including the large families. My father's mother, Nettie, was one of those 19 children. My father was one of 11 children. I was one of eight.
When many of my great-grandparents' children became adults, they left the farmland in North Carolina and headed north, where they were more job opportunities. They began migrating north in the early 1900s -- with one family member helping another.
As they settled in Philadelphia, Connecticut, New York and other relatives wrote brothers, sisters and cousins to tell them about the jobs they found up north. During the summer, they would return to the countryside in their cars and new clothes. Others couldn't wait to join them.
My father, Daniel, a tall, stern, no-nonsense man who can quiet a crowded room of noisy teenagers with a bat of his eyes, was one of them. He left North Carolina in 1933 and was headed for Waterbury, Conn., an industrial city where many of my relatives had settled. But he stopped off in Virginia and never got any further. His first jobs were in a restaurant in Norfolk and in a soybean plant in Portsmouth.
When my parents moved to Virginia, they could not afford their own home, so they stayed with my father's first cousin and her husband for a while. They weren't the only ones there. My fathers brother and his wife also stayed there. Months later, my parents moved into a four-bedroom house of their own.
Since my parents only had one child at that time, they had room for relatives. Several cousins, brothers and sisters lived for various periods at my parent's home.
Meanwhile, my father was steadily finding the job he wanted. He began working in a metal shop at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth in 1940 and later moved to the Naval Air Station in Norfolk, where he worked on planes until he retired in 1972 after 32 years of service. My mother, who never worked outside the home, often took care of other children of relatives, who could not afford a babysitter.
My parents, who have been married 48 years, had four sons (one drowned in 1965) and four daughters. I am what some folks call the "knee-baby," which means I am next to the baby.
When we were growing up, this family that was supposed to be disintegrating spent a great deal of time visiting relatives in North Carolina. I remember fondly those Sunday trips from our house in Portsmouth to my grandparents' home in North Carolina, where we gathered with other small cousins and chased the chickens and hens in the yard. Sometimes my uncle Simon, who to this day has the largest hands I have ever seen, would let us pet the horse named Lightning.
My brother Joe and I liked to go to North Carolina to see my grandparents so much that we once headed there on my tricycle. Of course, we gave up three blocks from the home when Joe forgot the way and our church minister admonished us for being so far from home.
These memories made me more than anxious to attend the reunion.
It was a dreary, rainy Friday when we began arriving at the inn my family had booked in Portsmouth, but the rain did not dampen the spirits of my relatives.
Why Portsmouth, you might ask? Simple. That's where the majority of the relatives who planned the reunion live. Besides, my great-granparents' hometown, Holly Grove Township in Gates County, does not have an inn or hotel that could have accommodated us.
From every part of the country they came. There was a bus load of 50 from Philadelphia. Others arrived from New Jersey, Virginia, Connecticut, New York, the District, Michigan, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio, Georgia and North Carolina. My sister and her two sons flew in from Hawaii.
Everywhere you turned there was a relative ready to great you with hugs and kisses and handshakes and tears. There were cousins who were finally meeting for the first time, others who had not not seen each other in years.
"I never knew Dan had a daughter this pretty," one cousin said, giving me my umpteenth hug of the weekend. There was the "My, you're not married, yet? What are you waiting for?" One of my cousin took the opportunity to find me a husband, but the distant cousin she picked for me turned out to be married and had two children. "What do you care?" she asked. "I hear that doesn't mean a thing in Washington."
I got reacquainted with my great-uncle Jordan, whom I remembered seeing on the trips to my grandparents' home as a child. Great-uncle Jordan, who is 84 now, is one of two remaining children of my great-grandparents. His sister, Cherry, is 97. Because of illness, she was unable to attend the reunion.
Great-uncle Jordan walks a bit slower now and his back is slightly bent, but he still walks with his head held high and is as sharp as ever. One morning I asked him how he had slept the night before. "All right, I guess," he said slowly. "Would've been better if I had a lady friend."
There were other light moments. My 18-year-old nephew, who had been a little reluctant about attending the reunion, turned out to be having so much fun I had to ask what his secret was. He said he decided "to go for it" with any female beyond first cousin. Another cousin, from Philadelphia, found he would not be alone when he enrolled this fall at Hampton Institute, a predominantly black college in Hampton, Va. There'll be two other cousins from New York joining him.
The reunion provided other firsts for a number of relatives. For some, especially some of the city-slicker teenagers who grew up on the streets of Philadelphia and New York, it was their first trip to the family homestead and family church.
Many appeared enthralled by the whole weekend. They weren't alone.
One cousin marveled at how, in a time of economic strain, so many people could find the time and the money to get together with family. "Family will survive even hard times," another cousin remarked.
My Family knows that, oh so well.We have what I like to call an army of relatives who keep the pulse of the family. When someone needs any type of help or support, they are there. Just recently a sick uncle who lives alone was hospitalized. He was unable to walk when he returned home, so his sisters, brothers and cousins volunteered to provide around-the-clock help until my uncle got well.
Similarly, when a family member graduates from college, it's not unusual for carloads of relatives to attend the graduation. I know. They did it for mine.
Bringing all of us together for this reunion was no small feat. The seeds for the reunion took root in two cousins in their mid-twenties who just decided that it was time for the whole clan to get together.
Back in November my cousin Daryl, a credit analyst in Columbus, Ohio, began sending out leaflets. The word began spreading from relative to relative, and within a month she had the names and addresses of dozens of kinfolks who were interested in coming. Others got on the phones and did their own campaigning to get family members to come back home.
By January, a 20-member planning committee, under the coordination of my cousin Lucille, started making plans, booking the hotel, arranging for a banquet and disco and reserving the entire church for our Sunday family service.
All 11-page souvenir booklet with a picture of my great-grandparents, the family history, a genealogy chart with 439 of the 600 descendants (a cousin and an aunt spent three days putting the chart together) and a schedule of reunion activities was printed. It was inserted in a registration kit which was given to each family member.
To me, though, the highlight of the arrangement was the Sunday motorcade from the hotel to Corapeake, a 40-mile trip. We stopped at the family homestead, which is owned today by a cousin. Up the dusty lane from the paved road, a portion of the house where my great-grandparents raised their 19 children still stands. No one lives on the land now. My cousin rents small parts of it to farmers who raise corn and soybeans.
Past the homestead, the pastures where the cows grazed and the clapboard houses mixed in with newly built brick homes, we drove to "Wiggins X-Road" where New Middle Swamp Baptist Church is located a few miles down the road.
Inside the white walls of the century-old church, with its white-tiled ceiling and stained window panes, the family choir -- 35 brothers, sisters and cousins dubbed the "Singing Cousins" -- sang to the top of their voices. Many of the women in their colorful dresses and hats and men in three-piece suits and ties waved the hand fans from the local funeral home to keep cool. Beside the wooden pews, folding chairs were placed in the red-carpeted aisles to accommodate the overflow crowd. But they were not enough.
Some of the younger ones gave up their seats to older relatives and spent their time roaming the church cemetery where my great-grandparents, my grandparents and many other relatives are buried.
Surveying the aunts, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren in the church, my cousin LeCounte summed up the feeling when he said: "We have something to be proud of. We have come from slavery. We have come from hard labor on the farm to a clan like this. . . .It's a great feeling to know where you came from and to know you have a family this size. This shows that his family can go a long way because they have come so far."
But perhaps Lerone Bennett Jr., in this month's issue of Ebony, even better summed up those feelings when he wrote: "There is . . . plenty of evidence to show that black men and women -- despite slavery, despite desegregation, despite everything -- created a modern love song in life and art that is the loveliest thing dreamed or sung this side of the seas."