The ties that bind

Clyde Williams owns a business in Oak Park,

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Clyde E. Williams moved to Chicago in 1979â€"its West Side is where he sought his fortune and raised his children, where he bought a house and then a business, and later bought anotherâ€"but this isn't home. Not really.

For Williams, home will always be 40-some acres of farmland and forest along the northeastern edge of Chatham County, North Carolina. That's where he grew up, on the property his family has owned for seven generations (eight, if you count the latest crop of grandchildren), starting with a part-Indian, part-African slave girl named Mountain. Just down the road stands New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, which Williams' ancestors gave much of the money and all of the land to found back in 1870. As a boy, Williams could look out the front window at the family cemetery's impressive assemblage of forebears: blacksmiths, turpentiners, farmers and entrepreneurs, church deacons and Sunday school teachers. Mountain is there, too, beneath a tombstone that reads, "Beginning of the Williams family."

"The home place," Williams said. "That's where everybody's got their roots."

And they prove it every year. Since 1895, the Williams clanâ€"they call their ever-dispersing collection of kin the Williams Family Circleâ€"has celebrated Mother's Day with a family reunion at the original homestead. This past May, 300 or so relatives descended on Chatham County for the 110th time and checked into rooms at the Sheraton Hotel.

There was, as always, a fish fry and a family golf tournament. Aunts and uncles and cousins and grandchildren spent Saturday afternoon trimming hedges and pulling weeds in the cemetery, placing fresh flowers on headstones. On Sunday, everyone crowded into the pews of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church.

"The reunion is an almost indescribable thing," said Williams, who's owned PJ's Ace Hardware in Oak Park for more than two decades. "It's like a spiritual rebirth. I mean, you meet newborns in the family, you see people you grew up with. And hugs. So many hugs and kisses. It's a renewal of everything."

Mountain's legacy

The reunions began with Mountain's grandchildren 18 years after her death. A pretty girl with a knack for mouth-watering cakes, she belonged to plantation owner George Williams, who'd journeyed 90 miles to a slave market in Fayetteville, N.C., to buy her. Back home in Chatham County, George's son John took Mountain as his mistress, and she bore him at least seven children. One of them was a blue-eyed daughter named Josephine.

If Mountain was the Williams family's mother, Josephine was certainly its matriarch. A woman of fierce determination and spotless kitchen counters, Josephine was a deft administrator of home and family. Her children worked hard in school, and her door always stood open to passing ministers exhausted from their travels. In 1866, Josephine helped organize a weekly meeting of the faithful under a brush arbor near the public road. A few years laterâ€"with land donated by Josephine's sister Carolineâ€"that congregation became New Hope Missionary Baptist Church.

Meanwhile, the 17 acres of farmland Josephine inherited from her motherâ€"part of the property ceded to Mountain by John Williams, the planter who fathered her childrenâ€"remains in the family. It's where Clyde Williams grew up, in a house built on the ashes of Josephine's original home, which burned to the ground in 1928.

More than a century after she died, Williams talks about his great-great grandmother as if he might have known her. As if he does know her.

"Josephine was very serious, very ambitious for her children," Williams said. "But she was also loving. You can see that education in the family has been pushed for a long, long time."

For Williams, everything reverberates. Sitting in the office of the Ace Hardware he bought from his uncle 22 years ago, he can even feel the echo of his great-great grandfather Charles Williams, Josephine's husband and a blacksmith who, according to family lore, "indulged in no foolishness and tolerated none." A strict father, Charles cut as formidable a figure as his wife did.

"I'm just a modern-day blacksmith," Clyde Williams said. "I didn't realize it until after I got into the business, but that's what it is. My great-great grandfather was the area blacksmith. He shoed a lot of horses and got to know a lot of people. That's what this business is like; you talk to people, you get to know them. You tell them what they're going to need."

Josephine died in 1894, leaving behind 10 children who ranged in age from 17 to 3 months. The following May, those who'd married and moved off the farm came back to visit their sister Maggie. She had stayed put in the neighborhood with her new husband to help look after the youngest siblings. The family came together again the next year, too. And the next, and the next. By the time the 20th century came into view, the Williams reunion was becoming tradition.

The stretch of generations

Nicknamed "the original 10" by their descendents, Josephine's children were the doddering old-timers of Clyde Williams' earliest memories: Math and his brother Tommy, who passed whole summer afternoons talking in the shade of the family cemetery; Dora, who always provided the Christmas Eve feast at her house in Durham; Ara, who lived longest. Until the day she died, Ara drank a can of Budweiser with every night's supper. Trudging behind a mule every spring, young Williams plowed the garden for his great-grandmother Bertha, who even as an old lady could still strike a snake dead with a garden hoe.

As the original 10 began to give way, the Williams clan dispersed into a maze of new surnames: Atwater, Davis, Horton, Lassiter, Mitchell, Turner. New matriarchs emerged, new heirs took over the property.

Some of Williams' most vivid memories are of his grandmother Margie Alston, a "red-letter Christian" whom he called Mama. She would take Williams and his two brothers with her on her nighttime errands through the forest, evangelizing to the unsaved, selling butter she churned herself, burying stillborn babies other people were afraid to touch.

"We would walk through the woods, and it was darkâ€"it gets dark out in the countryâ€"but you could walk," Williams said. "There were paths through the woods that you could feel even if you couldn't see them."

Rarely as a boy did Williams come across anybody he didn't know. Seam by seam, adjacent family farms knitted together nearly 50 acres surrounding his childhood home. All of them were owned by descendents of Mountain. Still are.

"Everybody down there was some kind of kin," Williams said. "At one time, everybody that went to New Hope Church was related to me. A hundred people sitting in the church every Sunday. We were all someway connected."

And yet, for all the multitude of Chatham County cousins once and twice and three times removed, there were always a growing number of family members who lived elsewhere, in places like California and Texas and Chicago and New York. As a youngster in the 1950s, Williams found the yearly influx of exotic kinfolks positively exhilarating.

"You see people come in from all other parts of the country, and it makes you want to go to California, it makes you want to go to Chicago," Williams said. "It makes you want to reach out and do something. Now it's the other way around. Now the kids are looking at me and saying, 'How did you get your own business? How did you do it?'"

There's no place like home

In recent decades, the Williams Family Circle has become as much an organization as it is a family. Relatives still holding down the fort in North Carolina divide into committees to plan and execute the yearly reunion and occasional vacation in between, to write and disseminate newsletters and announcements, to research family history and track down old records. In cities and states where Williams descendants seem to flock, like New York and Chicago, local chapters of the Williams Family Circle have sprung up.

In 1995, the family published an album to celebrate its 100th reunion. Then-President Bill Clinton sent a letter of congratulation, as did then-North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt and Chatham County commissioners.

All of the letters were reproduced in the front of the album (a 196-page volume whose binding recalls a high-school yearbook) along with a copy of Mountain's will and testament, a page from the ledger that records her purchase, and an 1883 report card that proves the original 10 rarely missed school. The album includes labeled pictures of nearly every Williams offspring and biographies detailing the lives of Mountain, Josephine and Charles, the original 10, and many of their children. There are whole pages of ads. At the back of the book, a five-page family tree offers a crib sheet, and a masthead at the front of the book names an editor-in-chief, a historian, a photographer and a gaggle of "consultants."

"We're serious about family," Williams said. "There's a lot of love."

He won't pretend there aren't fightsâ€"religion seems to be a thorny issueâ€"but Williams insists most all family members can name a time when they were rescued from danger or despair or destitution. A check will come, a truckload of furniture will pull up in the driveway. An aunt will arrive from out of state.

Williams' uncle Frank Atwater gave him and his family a place to stay when he first arrived in Chicago. When a labor strike at Harvester International put Williams out of work during his first year in the city, his uncle offered him a job in his sporting goods store. Years later, when a cousin found herself mired in drug addiction, Williams looked after her daughter as his own.

"Having the family there gives you the confidence to reach outâ€"if the bottom falls out, I can go home and there's a roof I can get under. I can find myself," Williams said. "But it also inspires you to work hard, like, 'All right, Clyde, don't mess up. Don't let them down.'"

Reunions give him that same comforting jolt.

"It's wonderful," he said. "You go homeâ€"and you're really going homeâ€"and you talk to everyone and ask how they're doing. You tell them what you've been doing in the last year. But you're always losing somebody. 'So-and-so passed.' It makes the hugs and kisses more and more like, 'I need this, I need this to keep me for another year.'"

Sooner or later, many of the far-flung kinfolk wind up back in Chatham County. When people get old and their bodies start moving slower, Williams said, they want to be near home and family. They miss the country. They want to be buried among their own people.

"If you're there in the family cemetery, your memory lives on," Williams said. Everybody goes out there and mows the grass, keeps things nice, reads the names on the gravestones and thinks about you. It makes you realize that the way to make this whole thing liveâ€"the reunion, the family, everythingâ€"is the kids. Involve the kids early on."

In another 10 or 15 years, Williams reckons he may be ready to think about moving back to North Carolina. Not yet. In the meantime, he's thinking about next month's payroll at the hardware store, and this month's inventory. He's thinking about his childrenâ€"all of them grownâ€"and grandchildren. Besides, he likes Oak Park. It's not exactly home, but, well, nothing else is.

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