Family Reunions are a stable part of American Society, an occasion when many members of an extended family reconnect, socialize and learn the family’s history. Sometimes reunions are held yearly or every other year. The term family reunion came about when Congress instituted a proclamation in 1985 to address the growing trend of runaway children seeking reunification with their immediate and extended families. As time went on, families around America embrace the idea as their own, establishing their own events and family meet-ups.
This weekend, I attended my family reunion in Paris, Tennessee. This is my Mother’s side of the family, the Hilliard-Price descendants who originated from Henry County, Tennessee. My mother who will be 90 years old this October was born in a little railroad town named Henry which is two hours west from Nashville. My mother who left Henry at the age of thirteen, gave my sister, Cheryl and I a compelling overview of her life as a little girl growing up there.
Imagine a time in the 1930’s , living in a small bustling little town of two hundred and forty-one residents by the railroad tracks. Everyone tilling their own land, growing food, raising livestock to care for their immediate families. Many African-Americans during the time worked as sharecroppers for white farmers who were the owners of most of the land there. However, my mother’s grandparents own one hundred acres of land which they farmed themselves for a number of years. My mother fondly remembers picking cotton on the land and running barefooted up the hill to her grandmother’s house at the end of the day. Her grandmother sold the land years later when my mother was well into adulthood and now the land is own by a lumber mill.
My mother began working at a young tender age of ten approximately 1937, a year before congress enacted and pass child labor laws to protect children from working. She worked at the Henry Station Café making biscuits at night and then she would sleep on the floor in the storage room so she can be up in time the next morning at six to help serve breakfast. After breakfast was served she would gather up her books and run to school. Times were hard back then during the Depression Era. Many Americans were economically stressed, often working menial poor paying jobs to make ends meet to feed their families. Children like my mother were forced to pitch in and earn their keep. Often working long grueling hours on a daily basis without a day off. Today the café is an auction gathering place. Every month a public auction is held to auction off beautiful cherry wood antique furniture from the depression era starting at ten dollars.
Across the street from the cafe used to be a train station. It is no longer there including the railroad tracks. In its place is an empty barren field overgrown with weeds. My mother told us about the time President Roosevelt rode through the town by train on his way back to Georgia. The town residents waited hours for him to arrive and when he finally did, he waved at them through the window as the train passed by. Down the street from the railroad tracks is a church named Cumberland Presbyterian, my Grandfather Hilliard’s church which is over a hundred years old. The church is still standing after all of this time. I was amazed how well it was kept up over the years.
As we tour her birthplace, she showed us the town hall, an old building made of thick logs still operating today. Down the street from there was her mother’s church, A & M Methodist which is still standing as well. The building in good shape just like her father’s church. My mother explained her parents had different religions so they went to separate churches. My grandmother was a Methodist and my grandfather was a Presbyterian. My mother and her five siblings, two sisters and three brothers, most of the time attended church with their mother.
Nine miles down the road from Henry, is a city called Paris. My mother has fond memories of traveling there by mule and wagon where she would stay with friends for the summer. It was an all day trip by her recollection. Complaining it took all day just to travel nine miles. I guess so, I told her if a mule and wagon was your only mode of transportation. She laughed recognizing the childlike innocence of her recollection of such a long time ago.
Unlike Henry, Paris has prosper since my mother spent her summers there. Many local businesses from the old days past are still operating along with new ones such as Lowe’s and Kroger. There is even a winery called “The Paris Winery” where you can purchase home grown wine. The city, itself, houses the Paris Landing State Park which sits directly on the Tennessee River. Over the years, retirees from all over the eastern part of the states have moved into the area. Attracted to the city’s low cost, clean, slow pace living. The boating, fishing and sun bathing activities are a major draw as well. On Saturday, we gather at the park for the family picnic and later that day we enjoyed a boat ride on the choppy Tennessee River. With the temperature in the mid-seventies, the day was just right, clear and sunny. It was a relaxing day being around family and friends.
As the clear day turned to dusk, our fourth cousin, Samuel Tharpe, who also used to be the mayor of the city, took us to a local restaurant called Take Me Back Café on West Wood Street for dinner. My friends, if you are ever in Paris, Tennessee, that’s the place to go. We ordered a fried catfish dinner and the fish was piping hot and soooo good! Not only was the food delicious, but the staff’s good old fashion southern hospitality made us feel right at home. We stay there three hours laughing and talking with the local residents in the restaurant as we enjoyed our delicious meal. It was night fall by the time we left there and from there our cousin took us to see a replica of the Eiffel Tower in a nearby park. The Eiffel Tower was lit up with blue lights while tourists scatter around took pictures of the unique structure. Soon our busy, enjoyable day had to come to an end. However, tomorrow is another day. A day planned with more fun activities and events such as attending church and the Family Reunion Banquet. I look forward to it. I can’t wait. Learning about my family’s heritage this weekend has been both an exciting adventure and very enlightening.