With a hymn, a prayer and an official blessing, the Dorsey family opened its 50th annual reunion in Sykesville yesterday.
Some 100 descendants of Ed and Carrie Dorsey, nearly all wearing T-shirts printed with the family tree, watched as Mayor Jonathan S. Herman presented 88-year-old Thelma Dorsey Jackson with a key to the town. Letters of congratulations also arrived from state Sen. Larry E. Haines and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.
Dorseys have lived in Sykesville for more than a century, longer than the town of 3,500 has been a town.
"Wonderful as you are as individuals, you're even more remarkable as a family," said the mayor. "There are not that many families as together as your family."
The reunions began when a loaf of bread cost 14 cents, the year RCA introduced 45-rpm records and "The Lone Ranger" debuted on television. In 1949, Ed and Carrie Dorsey presided over their 12 children, countless grandchildren and a few great-grandchildren.
The menu -- deep-fried chicken, fresh corn on the cob, green beans and Aunt Hazel Collins' potato salad -- has not changed since the second year, but the quantities have tripled: a truckload of corn, 50 pounds of potatoes and 35 pounds of chicken.
"And, we probably won't have leftovers," said Collins, resting on her cane after peeling, mixing and cooking.
Jerome Byrd fired up the fryer -- an old Army kettle -- at 6: 30 a.m. and was still rotating plump pieces of battered chicken at noon. Several adults gathered around the truck, husking corn and tossing it into water boiling on a huge brick stove.
"Lordy, I don't know how many ears we're husking," said Grayson Dixon, who had arrived at 5: 30 a.m. to start cooking. "We just keep going till the truck is empty."
Everyone brought bag lunches to the first reunion and sprawled across Ed and Carrie's back yard. They soon realized that a communal meal would serve them better the following year.
"Everybody had something different and everybody wanted a taste of the others'," Jackson said of the first reunion meal. "Rather than having everybody want, we decided we would all eat together from then on."
"We couldn't share those lunches anyway," said Emerson Dorsey, 77. "There wasn't enough."
Even so, the bag lunches were heartier than the standard lunch fare -- lemonade made from one lemon, and bread soaked in syrup -- the Dorseys knew growing up on the farm their parents bought at the turn of the century.
"I carried a bucket of eggs to the store in town and I brought it back filled with syrup," said Jackson.
Seven of the original dozen Dorseys survive. Chester and Minnie Dorsey live on the farm in a newer home, built between the one in which he grew up and a sprawling pavilion the Dorsey brothers built so the expanding family would have a gathering place.
"We have a family center just for this," said Edna Jackson Greer, daughter of Thelma and Samuel Jackson. "It's a place where we can all come without any wear and tear on anybody's house."
The building is called Peace, Love and Harmony. Family photographs line the walls and there is a carving of a family tree to which names are added at every reunion.
Thelma Jackson, the oldest of Ed and Carrie's four daughters, now presides over the reunion. Wearing a red baseball cap stamped "Peace, Love, Harmony, Dorsey Family Reunion," she graciously received guests from her spot on a picnic bench. She has never missed a reunion, always a Labor Day tradition, and she considers attendance mandatory. Even the tired remnants of a hurricane could not halt the festivities.
"We have never been rained on in 50 years," said Greer.
No one is ever sure who is the youngest member of the family, until all the newborns arrive. When Sandra Dixon walked in with an infant, someone said, "There's the youngest." Dixon, the mother of 6-month-old twins, answered, "There's two youngest." The names of Robert F. Dixon and Richard N. Dixon III -- the grandsons of state Treasurer Richard N. Dixon -- were carved into the family tree yesterday.
The treasurer, known as "Dicky" to family, is theoretically an in-law, married to Grayson Dorsey Dixon.
"Nobody here is an in-law," said Jackson. "Once you're in the family, you are just like family."
Prayer and reminiscence
The day starts with prayer and a family history, then shifts into games, a talent show and the omnipresent food.
And reminiscing. They recounted how Thelma Jackson, a retired Baltimore elementary principal, in her student days had to take a train to Baltimore every day and walk from the station to Frederick Douglass High School. When she was a teen, Carroll County had no high schools open to black students.
They remembered how their parents made togetherness the cornerstone of family life.
"Mama always told us there were enough of us to keep each other entertained," said Jackson. "She believed in everybody getting along. She said we had to stick together. There would be no legacy, if we didn't."
And, they remembered Carrie Dorsey, the daughter of slaves, who had no formal schooling but believed strongly in education. She sent all her children to a one-room school in town, the only school for black children.
"We had to go to school," said Jackson. "There was no such thing as staying home sick. If you were sick, you took an aspirin and you went to school."
Ed Dorsey worked as a chef at Springfield Hospital and also worked part-time for the B&O; Railroad, which ran through the town.
"He got me a pass to ride the train, so I could go to school," said Jackson, whose commute made her high-school day 13 hours long.
Jackson is paying her grandson's tuition at the University of Maryland, College Park, a school which denied his grandmother admission to its master's program in the 1930s.
A family of educators
Like Jackson, a 43-year veteran of the city school system, many of the Dorseys became teachers and administrators.
"All of them are successful, most of them in education," said Greer, principal at Leith Walk Elementary School in Baltimore. "I look at my family, how they get along. This is one family that is not breaking down."
Tom Dorsey, Thelma's 79-year-old brother and the family tenor, led the hymns and prayers.
"We have come a long way from the post-slavery days of Carrie and Ed," he said. "We hold fast to our solidarity with them. Their memory gives us strength."
Jackson cannot remember a time when her younger brother wasn't singing. The siblings used to tire of his voice and send him to the woods to sing. Yesterday, they gave him thunderous applause.
"Our father's material treasures were few," said Tom Dorsey. "But, the treasures of his family were immense."
Dozens of children played on the lawn, while their elders caught up with one another.
"I know I am related to them all, but I don't know how," said Dennis Wynn, 6.
For 13-year-old Gary Saunders, who thrilled the crowd with a saxophone solo, the reunion was a chance "to get to know my cousins better."
"This is just a great family," said Gary. "There is a lot of love around here."
Pub Date: 9/07/99