Ripley, Ohio, a small town on the Ohio River right across from Kentucky, is better known as a major stop on the Underground Railroad.
The house that belonged to Presbyterian minister John Rankin, a famous abolitionist, still sits on a hill overlooking the river, where runaway slaves climbed "the 100 steps" -- wooden stairs built into the hill leading from the river -- to freedom. Rankin assisted in the escape of a slave woman and her son who were the originals for Eliza and her son in "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
But for me, Ripley was the oddly named town where my father visited his father's people "in the country" as a child. So Ripley held a special poignancy for me as I returned to Cincinnati recently for the Berrys' 13th consecutive reunion.
For my father's family, Ripley is our "Roots." Since 1977, the Berrys have been holding family reunions either in or near the town. We are descended from Moses Berry, who was born a slave. He enlisted as a private in a U.S. Colored Troop regiment in Kentucky and fought on the Union side in the Civil War. He moved his family to the farm community of Red Oak outside Ripley a few years after the war ended.
Moses was a teamster -- a wagon driver -- and a farmer, who with his wife Mariah raised two boys and a girl. His two sons became farmers like him. One son, Arthur, my great-grandfather, and his wife, Ada, had 12 children, who in turn had large families between them, and most of their offspring and descendants still live in Ohio.
I figure I'm related to most of the black folks in the central and southern part of the state, some not even blood relatives; the descendants of a man who served in the same U.S.C.T. regiment with my great-great-grandfather are still considered our "cousins" more than 100 years later.
Moses' physical legacy runs strong. He was described in his Civil War pension claim as having hazel or gray eyes, black hair and a "yellow" complexion; knowing this, I marvel at my cousins, many of whom have those same gray-hazel eyes and light brown skin.
The Berry family still has strong ties to "the country." A few of my cousins still live near Ripley, or in Georgetown, which is even smaller.
The family still owns what is left of Arthur's farm, seven acres of a 15-acre "slave plot," according to a cousin. On Main Street in Ripley stands the Berry-Delaney Post 705 of the American Legion. It was named for Moses' grandson, William Russell Berry, and Frank Delaney, who died in World War II.
Many of my relatives, including Moses and his son Arthur, are buried in the Red Oak Cemetery outside Ripley. A white church, Red Oak Presbyterian, was one of the few in the area to allow blacks to bury their dead in the cemetery.
I have spent three years researching the family, and it is hard not to feel choked up through the Berry party and picnic. I had not even met most of my grandfather's family until the 1988 reunion, which coincidentally occurred only weeks after my father died. Meeting my family for the first time then, combined with the blow of my father's death, pushed me to intensify my research. I felt sad that my father was not able to see some of the cousins he knew as a child. Nowadays, the summer reunions are priority trips on both maternal and paternal sides of my family.
I secretly nurture a desire that we Berrys could have one of those grand family reunions that get written up in the newspaper. I envy those mega-gatherings: 500 people, all related, at a huge family picnic that has been held since before I was born, with reunion T-shirts bearing four hyphenated surnames, and they have traced their history all the way back to their first African ancestor. Finding a great-great-grandfather who was in a U.S.C.T. regiment seems tame in comparison.
But I suspect that my reunion is closer to reality. These days, even though a good-sized crowd of 80 relatives and their guests attended the family picnic, it is hard to maintain the unity that existed when Moses' children and grandchildren all lived near one another on farms in Red Oak. This year, a fund-raising raffle barely paid for party and picnic expenses. The biggest segment of the family, whose attendance would probably have pushed our number to 200, decided to skip it this year. I could not keep everybody's name straight. And it rained at the picnic.
The reception to my painstaking research as family historian was mixed. I found it awkward to talk to Cousin Regina about long hours at the library hunting for clues about Great-Great-Grandfather Moses over cigarette smoke, potato chips, Coca-Cola and loud, pumping rap music by Digital Underground at the Saturday night party.
My older cousins were fascinated with what I have found so far. They passed around the lone copy of the account I had written about Moses and our family. A few have even promised to assist me so we will have more history to present next summer.
The more I find out, the more questions I have. Who were Moses' parents? Were they from Kentucky, too? Where did the Berry family name come from? And I want to know more about Moses. I want my young cousins to know the story of an illiterate former slave who fought for his freedom in a war when he was about 48 years old, a man who outlived his wife and his oldest son.
Despite our interesting and humble legacy, the Berrys have not been spared the troubles that plague other American families. Perhaps by looking back to our own people, who stuck together in much harder times than these, we will find answers and inspiration on how to persevere today.