Reunion offers look at ancestry
Descendants of area slaves explore their roots
Published: Sunday, August 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, August 1, 2004 at 12:16 a.m.
On a journey to discover an unknown past, descendants of the slaves who built the historic Haile Homestead at Kanapaha Plantation set foot on ancestral ground Saturday for the first time.
Braving stifling heat, 175 people who came from across the country for the Chisholm and Descendant Family Reunion this weekend made the stop at the homestead after visiting the Dudley farm in Newberry.
"We come here to connect with our ancestors," Isaiah Branton, organizer of the reunion, told the crowd.
"Let us cry unity. Let us cry togetherness. Let us cry out for our ancestors who worked, died and bled on this plantation," Branton said.
The Haile family moved to Alachua County from Camden, S.C. in 1854. Thomas Evans Haile and his wife Serena owned 66 slaves and there were 18 slave cabins on the property. Nestled on 40 acres of land, the Haile house was completed in 1860, built by the hands of slaves.
The descendants of those slaves took turns walking the pinewood floors of the dimly-lit house. Some 12,000 messages jotted on the walls inside told stories of parties, guests and dances.
The homestead was one of several stops during the weekend reunion. Participants enjoyed a picnic lunch at Cone Park in southeast Gainesville as well as a family processional and talent show in the evening.
In the sea of purple-clad tour participants, Rick Williamson said the reunion gave him some of the answers he's been looking for about his roots. After researching his family genealogy for more than four years, Williamson said he believes his great-great-grandfather was Amos Haile, one of the slaves who helped build the Haile house.
"It's good to be able to put a place with the information," said Williamson, who flew from Los Angeles to take part in the family reunion. "This brings the story to life."
Karen Kirkman, docent for the historic Haile Homestead, said that the house will soon feature video kiosks so that people can record oral family histories that will become part of the tours.
"This gives us a tremendous opportunity to tell the entire story about what plantation life was like."
For 73-year-old Alfred Alston of Norfolk, Va., the trip back in time is one he said he'll never forget.
"This puts to rest a lot of the curiosity I had," Alston said. "It's like a mystery. To be here is exciting and exuberant; it gives you an appreciation for life. I would have never forgiven myself if I hadn't come to see this."
As the organizer, 51-year-old Branton said he was pleased by the overwhelming response.
"We have arrived at the knowledge of where our roots are," Branton said. "We can realize we've come a long way, but that we still have a ways to go in learning about our ancestors."
Deborah Ball can be reached at (352) 338-3103.
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