Wrapped tightly in winter coats, they gathered anxiously at Union Station's train gates on Thanksgiving eve like so many other urban refugees before them.
Outside on the tracks, a silver-colored train, "The Meteor," stood hissing and steaming under hazy-colored incandescent lights, ready to speed them away on a night ride to the South, a pilgrimage to the homeland.
These were people, not of official Washington, but of the other, larger Washington -- the workaday laborers, secretaries and low-level bureaucrats. They or their forebears once had journeyed from Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s in one of the great migrations of American blacks seeing the promise of the big cities of the North.
Now, as they have in the past, they are heading south again on a silver bullet of a train that shot them through the heartland of cotton, cane and tobacco fields. They were not jetting to Vail or the Bahamas for a quick, expensive break from official Washington routine. They were going home.
It would be a reunion not only of families, but of sights and sounds, warm memories of the past in such towns as Wilson and Rocky Mount, N.C., Columbia, S.C., and Baxley, Ga.
"We're going home now," said Dessie Cunningham, 74, who called herself "Granny" for a reporter accompanying her on the night train. She was spooning tuna salad and doling out country-fried chicken from a lunch bag to two granddaughters and one of their friends.
In segregated times, when blacks could not eat in railroad dining cars, they would bring along box lunches -- sometimes shoeboxes, lined with wax paper and tied with string, that were filled with fried chicken and other morsels. Some blacks nicknamed these South-bound trains, "The Chicken Bone Express."
For Granny Cunningham, it would be a bumpy, nine-hour train ride to Savannah, Ga., and then a cramped two-hour drive by car to the hamlet of Baxley, Ga., the family home.
For the last five years, Granny said, she has had Thanksgiving at the two-bedroom apartment at 1343 Clifton St. NW that she shares with a daughter and two grandchildren. But now, Granny said, she wanted to see the old homesite and her 76-year-old sister while she could.
There were others on the Meteor Wednesday night -- a soldier returning home from Fort Belvoir, a wife returning to mark her husband's grave, and a Howard University student en route to a family celebration. Their thoughts filled the pensive hours inside the darkened railroad car as it clacked along.
Small towns with five-block main streets, dozens of billboards and gas stations dotted the landscape, their peace broken only by the screech and flashing lights of passing trains.
"When I go back I don't spend time with friends anymore," Marshall said. "I've gone away and had different experiences from my friends and somehow I'm different. You can't just pick up where you left off."
"There's a whole other world out there," he said. "When you move away from your family they don't have as much to worry about, and you can do what you want with your own life. You feel more independent. I'm not saying I love them less. But it's a lot easier being myself not living in Columbia."
"I've seen them happy and I've seen them sad," said Malcolm Jones, a white-coated, blue-capped train attendant who shepherded sleepy passengers to their destinations during the night.
"Thanksgiving is one of the biggest times of the year," he said. "It's a time of anticipation, of good times for a lot of people, but for some people it is also a time of sadness that comes from the death of a loved one."
Willie Owens shared the sadness. She sat holding her 2-year-old granddaughter Lisa, on the way to Salem, N.C., by way of Wilson. Like so many other passengers, her train stop was not the final destination, but just another departure point for journeys to small towns still farther on.
"My husband died last January, and I'm going down to mark his grave with a marble plaque," she said softly. "I don't really want to go, but my relatives think it's good for me to face it.
"We had a good life in Washington. My husband was a GS-13 chef at Walter Reed. I was a GS-7 at the Government Printing Office, working in security, and we have a nice, red-brick detached home in Brightwood in upper Northwest Washington. All of our children went to college and are doing very well. Just when we thought we were ready to retire and enjoy life together, my husband died."
The irony saddened her. Both Owens and her husband had known the segregation of the '30s, '40s and '50s, then enjoyed the relative economic and social freedom they found in Washington thereafter.
Their lives together were "ideal," she said, even during the early cold reception they got from white neighbors when they first moved to Upper Northwest. And together, as a family, she said, they had prevailed through adversity. Now, looking out the window at the shadows broken by darkness, she said she felt alone.
"I'm 52, my husband was 53. We were born and grew up in the same town, just three houses apart," Owen said. "We shared so much love, but now on Thanksgiving morning after I place a marker on his grave, and later at dinner, I will think of past Thanksgivings with him.
"There are so many memories in North Carolina that I dreaded making this trip," she said. "I'm angry, but what can I do?"
Several seats in front of Owens, Cunningham stared out her window as dawn approached. For her grandchildren -- Shirley Jones, 19, who works parttime at the Veterans Administration as a GS-2 secretary, and Debra Watson, 16, a 10th-grader at Roosevelt High School -- Cunningham marked the changes in the lands pine trees, and convenience stores, stood where Cunningham remembered fields, Even the Savannah train station, where they debarked, seemed exceedingly new and modern.
Billy Carter (no relation to the president), a Cunningham in-law, greeted the family at the station and traded hugs and smiles.
Even so, years and distance momentarily made kin strangers. The younger ones traded "my-how-you've-growns."
Cunningham herself marked the distance in the years since she first migrated to Falls Church, Va., 34 years ago as a live-in domestic. When she left her Falls Church employer, she said she stayed in Washington and sent for her children, hoping they would benefit by better education and job opportunities than those she had known in the Deep South.
But Carter, a young man in his 30s, proudly said the South is now new, unlike the lynch-era South that Cunningham remembered.
"I like it here. The people are friendly, and I don't have to worry about somebody robbing and killing me," he said, eyeing his urban visitors. "Sure, the jobs are good up North. Some of my relatives wear nice clothes and drive fancy cars. But now we have many of the same things that they have up there."
Thanksgiving afternoon and the rest of Cunningham's five-day sojourn would be spent in family reminiscences and in belly-stuffing feasts on ham, turkey, cornbread stuffing and sweet potato pies.
After a quick snack -- just a taste of the evening dinner to come, when carloads of other relatives would arrive from Washington and nearby Georgia communities -- Cunningham good naturedly hurried the youngsters out of the kitchen of her sister's home with a wave of her arthritic hand and a "Y'all go on out and have some fun."
Just as the old ones would sit and reminsce, Cunningham knew it was important for the younger relatives to live those times, so that later they could remember. And, she said, she couldn't keep her teen-age granddaughters around her in the evening if she tried.
But one granddaughter, Shirley, and Shirley's best friend, Bernadette Harding, 18, a Veterans Administration secretary who came to Georgia with the family, said they looked forward to the trip as a respite from the breakneck pace of work, weekend parties and shopping trips and disco dances at Washington night clubs.
"The old folks are going to stay home and have their house parties, but I'm taking the young ones out to a disco," Carter announced.
Cunningham and her sister, Penny Flowers, 76, rocked sleepy babies in their arms and later helped prepare the evening supper as the younger relatives headed for the town.
"You know, I think about my people all the time," said Flowers, who lives alone in the family's white frame house, built in 1921. "All this activity don't bother me. All I've got is patience, enough for you and everybody else."
"These youngsters grew up and moved to the big cites," Flowers added, smiling wryly. "They think they can find something better elsewhere.But there is always something to bring them back home, even if it's just for a visit."