This past week I had the opportunity to go to my paternal side of the family’s “Homecoming” down in East Texas. My father, Johnny Wendell Dolphus Harris’ father, my grandfather, Booker Telefaro Washington Harris was born in an area known as Shady Grove, Gary Tap, Texas right outside of Carthage and not too far from Shreveport, Louisiana. For at least sixty-two years, this town, which is made up of almost all kin, annually opens wide their doors and welcomes friends and family from near and far to come home and revisit their roots. My grandfather passed away before I was born, but my grandmother, Rebecca Ruth Reed Harris made sure we would be included. I remember as a child packing up the car in California and heading to Texas. And I discovered at a young age that Texas has a spirit unique unto itself. Texans are one of a kind.
Family and family history mean a lot to me and over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to go “home” a few times. A few years ago, I was able to take my daughter, Courtney to the Homecoming so that she could begin to put the pieces together from all the verbal conversations we’ve had over the years of who’s who and how we are all related. One of the things that always confused me was when someone would say to me that I was “double related” to someone, but eventually it became clear when I could put names and faces together and sit down with pen and paper and connect the dots. For example, my grandmother and her sister, Aunt LeAnna, married two cousins. My grandmother’s husband was Booker T. and Aunt LeAnna’s husband was Uncle Eli. Eli and Booker are cousins therefore their offspring are double related. With the community being relatively small, many of the families ended up inter-marrying.
As time progresses, the surnames of the families continue to grow. Originally the names I always heard about were Harris, Calloway, Champion, Flakes, Ingram, Lilly, Byrd, Beasley and Bryant. Now we also have McLemore, Womack, Sanders, Hawkins, Johnson, Morris, Smith, Roberson, Solomon and McDaniel. I’m sure there are even more as our branches continue to sprout from the roots. As our branches continue to stretch wide and across the globe, it is important for us to all pause every now and then and come together first to honor our ancestors and to make sure the new generations don’t forget their history. I have to say there’s also nothing like the down-home cooking that comes straight from the land and is seasoned with love and patience.
In the words of the late Toni Morrison, from her book Beloved, “Sweet, crazy conversations full of half sentences, daydreams and misunderstandings more thrilling than understanding could ever be.” This is exactly what it looks like to bring family together. There were so many different conversations that went on and oral family history tradition was in full bloom. I’ve learned as the years go by, truths can be twisted and turned and if we are not careful a legend can be based more on hearsay, half-truths, and assumptions. It’s up to each of us to seek the truth, write it down and if you are not sure of something, as my grandmother would say, be quiet. It’s important to try and keep the record straight.
As I reflect on my time down in Texas, my heart is full of joy because this particular year was extra special. A new member to our family, who was originally adopted close to 57 years ago, recently found out he was my first cousin and was able to go home and learn a little more about his roots. Welcome Home Gilbert!
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