An Extraordinary 100th Family Reunion This summer, Day to Day reporter Karen Grigsby Bates returned to her roots for the 100th-anniversary gathering of her extended clan in North Carolina. The family traces their roots to a single woman from Guinea.
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An Extraordinary 100th Family Reunion

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An Extraordinary 100th Family Reunion

An Extraordinary 100th Family Reunion

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

So much grim news this week, so many families scattered and missing loved ones in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, here is a story we are happier to relate. It's about families coming together for a reunion. And while we don't often ask our reporters to be part of the story, you'll see why we couldn't resist this one. Here's NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates.


In 1906, John Wesley Roberts and his cousins Wesley Mauney and Eli Borders Roberts sat down to plan a way to reconvene their families. They'd been scattered throughout North Carolina, first by slavery and then by emancipation. The three men, who had been born slaves, decided to ask family members who had lived on three adjacent plantations to journey with their now free families back to the place of their common beginnings.

(Soundbite of ambient noise at reunion)

BATES: It was located in what later became Kings Mountain, a small town about 30 miles west of Charlotte. That meeting launched reunions of the several families that form one large clan. And since then, they've met every single year without exception.

Ms. JEAN STOWE HUMPHREY (President, 100th Reunion Committee): Good morning, everybody.

Crowd: (In unison) Good morning.

Ms. HUMPHREY: Thank you all for showing up. We're going to have a fabulous day. I want to introduce you first of all to our tour guides. We have three buses.

BATES: That's Jean Stowe Humphrey, president of the 100th reunion committee for the Roberts, Borders, Mauney, Howell, Briggs and related families reunion. I'm part of that clan, which is how I ended up here. I'm wearing two hats this week, participant and reporter. We've gathered under the rotunda of a conference center in Kings Mountain, and Jean is preparing us for a daylong tour of sites important to our family's history.

Unidentified Man #1: Hey, hey.

Unidentified Woman #2: Good morning. How are you?

Unidentified Man #2: How you doing?

BATES: About 150 people climb onto three big buses for the tour. My tour guide was cousin Calvin Miller, a local minister.

Reverend CALVIN MILLER (Tour Guide): Fasten your seat belts. Get ready to ride.

BATES: On back roads that wind through Cleveland and Gaston Counties, cousin Calvin pointed out sites where our great-greats had worked as slaves, then freedmen as they built their own homes and established farms, churches, businesses and schools.

Mr. MILLER: This side of Buffalo Creek and the other side going on into Shelby is the area in which our forefathers started out. And especially after the Emancipation Proclamation, this is where we spread out.

BATES: Plenty of the land we saw that day was planted with tombstones. We got off the buses and wandered through three large cemeteries in which family forebears were buried.

Unidentified Woman #2: Who'd you say this one was?

Unidentified Man #3: This is just for him, Mark...

Unidentified Man #4: (Unintelligible) ...Roberts.

Unidentified Man #3: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman #2: The dates are different.

Unidentified Man # : I know, just a year.

BATES: Later that evening, almost 200 people met at Charlotte's African-American Cultural Center for a reception celebrating the art and artists in the family. Browsing the work of painters, photographers, writers and designers, I ran into Marsha Foster Boyd, a Methodist minister from Pittsburgh. She found support for her chosen field from an elder's example.

Reverend MARSHA FOSTER BOYD (Methodist Minister): When I was called to ministry over 30 years ago, I didn't know any women ministers. And my grandmother, Isabelle Roberts Ransor(ph), told me that there's Aunt Ida. There's Aunt Ida Roberts.

BATES: Great-great-aunt Ida Roberts had been married to a formidable minister, the Reverend J.W. Roberts, but was also a minister herself. Marsha says knowing about Aunt Ida gave her enough encouragement to become ordained. Marsha preached the sermon at our reunion's opening services and emphasized the responsibility facing our generation.

Rev. BOYD: I was saying last night that it's up to us as now the middle-age group to carry on these traditions that our forebears began.

BATES: Cousin Bob Wellman(ph), a college professor, didn't attend reunions as a child but, like Marsha Boyd, he now tries to get here every few years. One of the things that struck him about this 100th celebration was being able to see where he fits into this big clan and how his immediate family is linked with other relatives.

Professor BOB WELLMAN: It's nice to know that you have such an extended family, particularly when you look at the anthology that they created, so you get a true sense of, you know, how relationships go together. It's like seeing that that you realize what relationships are and how the family sort of has become very, very diverse.

BATES: At this reunion, there are about 500 cousins from 22 states. Their common denominator is one woman from Guinea, the family's oldest known ancestor. Her African name has been lost to us, but she was later given the name Sylvie(ph), and it was from Sylvie's seven daughters that the current families grew. At Friday night's dinner, Congressman and cousin Mel Watt gave the keynote address. He began by paying homage to Sylvie.

Representative MELVIN WATT (Democrat, North Carolina): And I give honor to my great-great-great-grandmother, the grand matriarch of our family whose real name we do not know and whose legacy we have all adopted and embraced each year as our reference point, a legacy which brings us here this evening.

BATES: Our family's insistence on acknowledging our origins year after year intrigued the Library of Congress. Five years ago, it entered the clan into the Local Legacies division of its American Folklife archives. Dr. James Billington, the librarian of Congress, came down for the weekend with a crew of documentarians. He explains what drew them.

Mr. JAMES BILLINGTON (Library of Congress): This is such a unique thing, a hundred years of a broad, inclusive, extended family with such a wonderful American story of accomplishment and the bonding of people together over a long period of time and a wonderful chapter that isn't--hasn't been told often enough in the African-American experience as well.

BATES: Some media came, too. My sister Pat couldn't leave her TV producer persona behind, and she got reporters from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Charlotte Observer and a representative from Kodak to cover the story.

PAT (Television Producer): David Kassnoff of Kodak said to me he felt that it was a unique opportunity to capture a wonderful even through pictures. And that's what Kodak does. I had my first Brownie when I was like six.

BATES: Careful, honey. You're dating yourself. Anyway, on Sunday, despite the threat of thunderstorms, we all went back to Shelby in Cleveland County for the reunion's closing luncheon. My effervescent 85-year-old aunt, Vivian Davidson Hewitt, pointed out that reunions are no recent trend for our family.

Ms. VIVIAN DAVID HEWITT: And you must remember that family reunions in the month of August, which is primary reunion month, didn't start happening until 25 years ago after Alex Haley did his book "Roots" and people became very interested in their history and their genealogy. We knew ours, and our is documented.

BATES: Keeping family members connected, with or without documentation, is vitally important, says cousin Leonard Mauney. In an anteroom lined with diagrams of clan family trees and walls filled with photos of Sylvie Fullen Whiter Roberts'(ph) descendants, cousin Leonard explains why the clan keeps coming back.

Mr. LEONARD MAUNEY: Look at here. If you look over there and see all of those families, we are descendants of those. Those children are Sylvia's right out of slavery. Do you realize that I'm only--let's see, Sylvia, Rosella(ph), Grandpa, Dad, me. I'm just five generations out of slavery. That's real important.

BATES: And like Marsha Foster Boyd, Leonard Mauney says it's time for the next generation to step up to the plate.

Mr. MAUNEY: I'm hoping this reunion will put a spark in the younger ones to keep it going, because it's very important. So if we can't keep it coming, it run out.

BATES: Oh, it won't run out, if only because nobody my age wants to be known as the generation that fell down on the job. Next August, reunion 101. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

CHADWICK: And you can see photos of this extraordinary gathering at our Web site,

I'm Alex Chadwick. There's more to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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