Mike Bailey remembers his relatives telling him how they used to come to Athens on mule-drawn wagons, park them off Monroe Street and walk to the Limestone County Courthouse Square so they could go to the picture show — but only through the back door.
As blacks, they lived in a world where rights were not equal.
This, though, is only one page in the rich history of the Horton family, which will celebrate its biennial family reunion this Labor Day weekend in Athens from Aug. 31 through Sept. 1. Bailey, a fifth-generation Horton who has traced his family's history back 223 years to 1790, is reunion chairman. He expects some 500 relatives to arrive in Athens from as far away as Iowa and California. The last reunion, in 2011, drew about half that.
“Everybody is real excited about the reunion,” said Bailey, who owns and operates Bailey Tires and Bailey Rental Properties.
The family will kick off the weekend Friday night with a meet-and-greet at Bridgeforth Park in Athens. On Saturday, there will be a family picnic with other events, including horseback riding, horseshoe throwing and others games, as well as a wigs and heels contest for the ladies and a dance contest for youths. On Sunday, family members will worship at St. Marks Primitive Baptist Church on Summerville Road.
These past few years, Bailey has been trying to unearth his family's history prior to 1790, the year a relative is first documented. The method for identifying slaves and slave children as well as fires at county courthouses has made record finding difficult.
Baileys oldest-known relative — James Horton — was born into slavery in Virginia in 1790, according to the United States census of 1880. From there, the family branched out to Arkansas, then to Mississippi, then to Tennessee and Alabama, Bailey said. Because slaves were often recorded by number, not by name, the challenge before Bailey is to piece together his family's history prior to 1790.
“They recorded the number of males and the number of females, but no family names,” said Bailey. “We are trying to find what our name was in Africa.”
He said they would have been given their master's name, which would have been Horton.