Community Voices

Descendants of families from Liberia hold Miami reunions

At the J. Kenneth Major Parish Hall, Church of the Incarnation: Seated, Harbour Island cousins Delores Johnson, Tampa and Miami reunion founder, Lena Elma Higgs Canty; standing, Arnold J. McNeal and Makia Curry, holding daughter Asaya Aimee-Bonnee.
At the J. Kenneth Major Parish Hall, Church of the Incarnation: Seated, Harbour Island cousins Delores Johnson, Tampa and Miami reunion founder, Lena Elma Higgs Canty; standing, Arnold J. McNeal and Makia Curry, holding daughter Asaya Aimee-Bonnee. Photo provided by Keith A. Curry

Hello, cousin. If you are a descendant of a “free man” from Liberia, West Africa, who was sent to the Bahamas to work as a farmer, perhaps we are cousins.

This summer I attended two separate family reunions in Miami discovering and meeting cousins on my late mother’s side. Her ancestral home in the Bahamas was Harbour (Harbor) Island with relatives several miles away in Hatchet Bay, on the island of Eleuthera.

Both known for magnificent beaches, Eleuthera’s clear turquoise and blue-colored water surrounds a 100-mile narrow strip of land. Harbour Island, approximately 3 ½ miles long and a half-mile wide, has pink sand beaches. The architecture and beaches on these islands help define the Bahamas and spark endless conversations at family reunions.

Arriving by airplane, automobile and bus, the Harbour Island family gathered for its 40th reunion, July 1-5 at the Biscayne Bay Marriott. The family names are Barry, Bethel, Cash, Cleare, Curry, Fisher, Grant, Higgs, Johnson, Major, Roberts, Saunders, Sawyer, Stirrup, Sweeting and Walker.

More than 90 in attendance celebrated the milestone reunion. Cousins traveled from Harbour Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland. Florida families represented Tampa, Jacksonville, Orlando and Miami.

Several were unable to attend. Cousin Ernest P. Boger II, a native of Tampa and a doctor of management, was traveling. I recall that in 1965 he was the University of South Florida’s first black African-American undergraduate. Currently he is an associate professor and chairman of the department of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore; and formerly, director of the Department of Hospitality Management at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach. Black Meetings and Tourism magazine named him one of the most influential African Americans in travel for five consecutive years.

Two other cousins in Miami at the time of the reunion were unable to attend because of illness: Theresa Manuel and Franklin Clarke. A graduate of Miami’s Booker T. Washington Senior High School, Clarke, a retired Miami-Dade County teacher and active member of the Harbour Island Family Reunion, died several weeks after the event.

Prior to the 2016 Rio Olympics, cousin Theresa Manuel, a Tampa native, was rediscovered. She made history in 1948 as the first black woman from Florida to compete in the Olympics. Recently she was featured in Tampa’s Legacy Video Series honoring Hillsborough County leaders from the minority community.

Forty years ago, the Harbour Island family reunion was the vision of Lena Elma Higgs Canty, along with Estella and DeWitt Stirrup. After attending funerals in Miami, DeWitt insisted that the family visit Tampa. In 1976, Canty organized a trip from Miami to Tampa for the first reunion.

Since then, reunions have been held in the hometowns of cousins living in New York, Fort Lauderdale, Toronto, Nassau and Harbour Island. Mix-and-meet socials, worship services and awarding scholarships are annual reunion activities.

The Harbour Island Family Reunion was incorporated in 1993. A brief history was written by the late Lorraine Sawyer Harrison with input from Canty and revised by Geneva Williams.

According to Malvern Mathis, co-reunion coordinator, the success of this year’s event lies in teamwork led by president Geneva Williams and co-reunion coordinator Sondra Wallace. Planning for the weekend began in January with 25 cousins volunteering to execute it six months later.

The oldest member in attendance this year was our cousin Thelma Gibson, a graduate of Coconut Grove’s George Washington Carver Senior High School. She is a retired nurse and former city of Miami commissioner. Her book, “Forbearance: Thelma Vernell Anderson Gibson, The Life Story of a Coconut Grove Native,” helps us connect to our Harbour Island cousins. Still productive and inspirational, on Dec. 17, she will celebrate her 90th birthday!

My second summer reunion was with the Johnson Brown Ranger (JBR) family, July 21-24 at the Newport Beachside Resort Hotel. The largest reunion in the family’s nine-year history, more than 150 cousins came from near and far including Nassau, Charlotte, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Philipsburg, Pennsylvania.

This family originated in Hatchet Bay, Eleuthera, a 10-minute boat ride from Harbour Island. The exact connection between the two families has yet to be confirmed.

Hiram Johnson is the recognized family researcher. He credits the passion of his grand-uncle, the late Thomas P. Johnson, for passing on stories to the generations. Also, his father, William C. Johnson, and cousin, Earl Carroll, shared valuable information.

Hiram received the first documentation from Whittington Bernard Johnson. Whittington and Lona Brown Mathis were the oldest cousins attending this year’s JBR reunion. A graduate of Dorsey Senior High School, Lona is a retired English teacher.

Whittington Johnson, Ph.D. professor emeritus, was the first African American hired in a tenure-earning position by the University of Miami. He chaired UM’s History Department several times during his appointment, from 1970-2002. A publishing scholar and nationally known historian, he graduated from Booker T. Washington Senior High School. Among his four books are “Race Relations in the Bahamas, 1784-1834” (2000); and “Post-Emancipation Race Relations in the Bahamas, 1834-1865” (2006).

The idea for a reunion was the collective thought of numerous cousins including Jean Morley, Judy Nelson, Whittington Johnson and Gloria Weaver. All thought it a good idea to meet for reunions instead of just funerals. The initial planning committee included Judy Nelson, Thomasena Johnson Mitchell, Steven Carroll and Hiram Johnson.

The first JBR Reunion was held in Miami in 2009. The following year, they returned to Miami with the idea of visiting here in even years. Other reunions were held in the Bahamas, New York and Philadelphia. Plans have begun for the 2017 reunion in Hatchet Bay.

A New York native, JBR reunion coordinator Hiram Johnson credits the host families in the towns where the reunions are held for “doing the heavy lifting.”

The 2016 reunion was coordinated by the descendants of Ruth Ann Johnson Dames, the oldest girl born to James William Johnson and Mary Susan Brown Johnson (born 1870 in Hatchet Bay). The reunion committee includes president Donna Dewberry; vice president Wendy Brown; secretary Donnis Harris; treasurer Trenise Davis; and vice-secretary and chaplain Tekia Smith.

Attending reunions gives cousins the opportunity to share stories and gain insight about their family’s history and health issues. Discovering connections and renewing friendships on both sides of my mother’s family was a rewarding adventure.

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, Ph.D., is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to djf@bellsouth.net.

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