Cornered by crazy uncles, meeting new in-laws, reuniting with estranged kin — nothing says “awkward moment” like a big ol’ family reunion. It’s just a part of that scene.
But few families have faced a moment like the Hunter family of Pamplico-Virginia Beach-New York-Memphis-Florida-Darlington and various points inbetween faced when gathering for their annual shindig this weekend.
A special guest, an, um, distant relation, joined the festivities. His name was Wayne Hunter and he’s the, um, well ...
Here’s how Robert Hunter handled it when it came time to introduce Wayne to the 75 or so members of the family gathered in Woody and Joan Hunter Dunbar’s backyard.
“Wayne’s great-great-great-grandfather,” Robert Hunter told the crowd, “was the slave owner to some of our great, great-greats.”
An extra great might have slipped in there, but everyone got his point: our folks used to call Wayne’s folks master.
No gasps erupted at the news. By the time the evening got to speeches and formal introductions, Wayne Hunter was already well known. The retired airlines employee from Atlanta already been through a couple plates of barbecue and a half gallon of lemonade and met so many “family” members that the names were just a blur in his head.
“Everybody’s been great,” Wayne Hunter said. “They’ve treated me just like — well, family.”
The unusual, but hardly unknown, meeting between slave descendants and slave owner descendants was the product of an almost inevitable collision between genealogy buffs Wayne Hunter and Joan Dunbar, with an assist from Robert Hunter. While trolling for Pamplico-Hyman-area Hunters on the website ancestry.com a month or so ago, Robert Hunter posted a note seeking anyone who knew his grandfather, Adam Hunter.
Wayne Hunter didn’t know Adam, but responded because he’d spent parts of the past 35 years trying to track down information on his great-great-great-grandfather Allen Hunter, a farmer in “Canes District,” the pre-Civil War name for the lower half of what is now Florence County.
A brief email exchange followed, which ended when Wayne’s queries surpassed Robert’s level of expertise. Said Robert: “I told (Wayne), ‘You need to speak to my cousin Joan. She knows everything about that family stuff.’”
Joan and Wayne connected soon after and spent more than an hour trading names, dates and places. Before the call was over, Joan invited Wayne to the reunion and Wayne accepted.
“She was extremely open and friendly,” Wayne Hunter said, “and because of that I felt at ease. I was a little nervous when I got here, but it’s really been great.”
Joan Hunter Dunbar said she never thought twice about inviting a white man, a descendant of the people who held her ancestors in bondage, to the event.
“It happened so quickly. I said, ‘we’re having a reunion,’ and he said, ‘I’d love to come to that,’ and I said, ‘Of course, c’mon’ — that I really didn’t have time to dwell on how awkward it might be,” she said. “What I thought is, ‘This will be great because of all that I’ll learn about my people. If it wasn’t for his great-great-grandfather I wouldn’t be here. To be able to talk to him and learn from him … I understand there might be some people offended, but I don’t see that.”
Whether the Hunters are unusual in that regard is hard to say. Part of Wayne Hunter’s inspiration for connecting with descendants of his family’s former slaves is Edward Ball’s award-winning book “Slaves in the Family,” in which Ball sought out many former Ball family slaves. Most of those encounters were friendly, but Ball was greeted with derision on a few occasions, in particular when he suggested to a 90-plus year-old matron of one of the families that his ancestors had a reputation as “kind-hearted masters.”
At Friday night’s fried fish and barbecue picnic, the circumstances behind the most unusual Hunter relation on record was greeted matter-of-factly.
Robert Hunter and Al Saunders, both of whom grew up as the Civil Rights movement was just getting under way, swapped stories of discrimination while the first batch of fish fried to a golden brown. Those times were tough, but they agreed — publicly, anyway — that Wayne Hunter’s presence was a good thing.
“This event is all about teaching the younger generations about the past and that’s part of the story,” Saunders said. “What’s past is past. That’s just the way it was then.”
Added Robert, “I can remember the day when this couldn’t have happened. We didn’t have much use for the people who didn’t look much like us, because they didn’t have much use for us. But times have changed. You have to move on.”
The awkwardness hurdle cleared, Wayne and Joan stood beside a smoking grill and bubbling kettles of fish and tried to figure out if they were actually related in the way they think they are.
It’s not a sure thing. Slavery genealogy is a tricky thing. Slave owners held all the records and when it came to their “property,” specifics, like full names and ages, weren’t important.
Joan Dunbar knows her great-great-grandfather Jordan Hunter was bought by the well-known Pee Dee plantation owner Andrew Hunter. Andrew, who had plantations from Darlington to Mars Bluff to Pamplico, moved Jordan from place to place.
That connection is certain, but Andrew Hunter is no relation to Wayne Hunter. His great-great-grandfather, Allen Hunter, moved to the Pee Dee from a different part of North Carolina. But Allen Hunter probably knew Andrew.
And in the 1870 Census — the first after emancipation — Allen’s family is found living just a mile or so away from Jordan Hunter, on the same road. There are also many oft-repeated family names. And, Jordan’s wife fits the age and description of one two female slaves owned by Allen Hunter in the 20 years leading up to the Civil War.
Pondering the circumstantial connections, Wayne Hunter said, “It could be coincidence, but if it is, that’s a lot of coincidences. There were only three Hunters in the county in 1870 and two of them were us.”
By us, of course, he means his family. The Hunters.