This past weekend, the ABC clan headed to Camilla Georgia, seat of Mitchell County, for a family reunion. ABC stands for Alexander-Brown-Catchings. My mother’s side of the family is descended from our earliest known family matriarch, Cassie Alexander, and her grandson Timothy Titus Catchings. As I indicated in the first chapter of my memoir, “Proving Ground,” Timothy Titus Catchings was an accomplished farmer in Mitchell County at the turn of the 20th Century and he was, sad to say, the only black man allowed to vote in the county for many years. My grandmother, Elizabeth Bernice Catchings Hayden, was Timothy’s eldest daughter. Lucky for me, she lived with our family from the day I was born and played a great role in my development.
Long Time Coming
I had not attended one of these family reunions since the 1990s, but I thought it was important to attend this one. My daughter Nadiyah had hardly met any of the relatives on this side of the family, and had never been to our family’s origin site. Many of the people who were there at earlier reunions, including my grandmother, mother, and sister, have passed on, and I saw the reunion as a way of feeling close to them again. Of course many of the relatives who survived since those earlier meetings are now much older, myself included! Who knows how many more chances we will have to get together again “down home.”
My older children Stacy and Aaron are now grown and married and living in New York, and I neglected to tell them about the reunion until a few weeks before the event, by which time they had their own plans. I noticed that the same was true for a number of the relatives – many of their offspring didn’t make it to the reunion. After experiencing the weekend and realizing how much Stacy and Aaron would have loved it, I felt terrible. I resolved that I will keep them fully informed and will strongly encourage them to attend the next one.
When I attended those earlier reunions, I didn’t pay much attention to matters of genealogy and history. I just hung out with the fam, ate the good food, and tried to keep cool in the blazing summer heat. This time, for sure because I’m older now, I wanted to understand how each person there was connected to the family, what they were doing, how their lives had progressed. Even though I had spent time learning the family history while writing Proving Ground, I realized how little ground my story actually covered. My cousin Fred Catchings wrote a family history journal for the occasion that contained a lot of information I had not known. Fred’s journal, made available to the entire family, and his presentation were an unexpected source of enrichment for everyone, and both were much appreciated.
My brother Fred, his wife Pat, and his “kids” Tracey and Fred IV attended the reunion, and it was great to spend time with them. My brother is much more of a family historian than I, perhaps because he spent his early years in Georgia whereas I was born in Flint, Michigan. Anyway, when I needed to fill the gaps in my family knowledge over the weekend I generally consulted Fred Tarver or Fred Catchings.
OMG – The Food!
We spent the entire weekend socializing and eating, taking pictures, and dancing…but especially eating. I had forgotten about that kind of eating: fried fish, chicken, fried corn, peas, butter beans, cakes, pies, sweet tea. You name it, we had it! I was concerned that I was going to gain 10 pounds during the trip, but mercifully, when I stepped on the scale the morning after our return, I hadn’t gained a pound! Must have been the heat and the dancing!
The first night of the reunion, Friday, was family fellowship and “college jersey” night. We just hung out informally, ate, played board games, and danced to the DJ music. Saturday was heritage night. Everyone was encouraged to wear African garb, and each family entered the venue to the beat of live African drums. After dinner, we danced to the sounds of a live band. I personally wished their music had been a little more traditional, i.e. 70s/80s/90s, but they did keep ears ringing and feet moving. Sunday we had a quasi church service and paid tribute to our ancestors. My cousin Alexa, who organized the event, asked me to sing a song, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” My sister Bernice used to sing that song, and it was one of her favorites, so even though I had never sung it, I gave it my best shot. Later I led the family in singing one of my grandmother’s favorites, the Mahalia Jackson version of “He’s Got the Whole Word Hands.”
- I’m glad we attended the reunion. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how it would go. Didn’t know if Nadiyah would enjoy meeting folks she’d never seen. Didn’t know if Kishna would have a good time. Hell, didn’t know if I would enjoy it. But I did – thoroughly. The event was enriching and enlightening, made me feel closer to my ancestors, and reminded me of who I am and where I come from.
- The family is a lot more affluent than we were back in the 1970s. Now we have doctors and lawyers and pharmacists, educators, government officials, engineers, and so much more. Family members don’t cook the food anymore – everything was catered. In the old days, Cecil and DB Catchings would have a pig roasting on a spit outside the family farmhouse, with sides of Brunswick stew, hog head cheese, and so forth. Don’t get me wrong, the food was great – but it was different.
- The old homestead is no more. A white pecan farmer owns most of the old family property now. Sad in a way, but I’m sure that’s a story that is repeated all across the South. I wish I had known before the property was sold – I would have seriously considered buying it. On the other hand, seeing those rows and rows of beautiful pecan trees on the property, its good to see that the place is being put to good use. Timothy Titus Catchings would have loved seeing those trees.
- As we drift away from the old homestead, we risk losing touch with the family heritage. My mother’s ancestors settled in Camilla, Georgia immediately after being freed from slavery. The farm that my great-grandfather ran provided sustenance that made our family’s current prosperity possible. I don’t want to forget Camilla, and I don’t want my kids to forget it, either. That is why we will return to this place.
- My cousin Alexa and her son Bernard did a masterful job organizing the family reunion. Kudos and thanks to them.