By Jean Cole
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.
This year, the Horton family celebration will include something a little different. Something that will help cement the family history in the minds of its youth.
“We are going to take a hay ride to the old home place near Elkmont,” said Bailey, who noted that the Hortons were the first black family in Limestone County.
With three trailers loaded with hay, family members — young and old — will stop at Vaughn's Hollow, the place the family first settled in Limestone County. Bailey's uncle, Buster Horton, who died when he was 106, lived in the area. There is a church and homes still standing there and family members still own property in the area, Bailey said.
From the Elkmont property, the Horton family hayride will make its way to Smithfield Cemetery in Elkmont so family members can see the resting place of those who came before them and share the memories they generated. One ancestor buried there is Robert Horton, who was born in 1864 in Alabama, and was a slave for two years.
Bailey is fond of the stories he heard about his family.
“My family had a baseball team in the 1940s and ‘50s, and played other teams in Elkton, Tenn., Pulaski, Tenn., and at the ballfield in downtown Elkmont,” he said.
The family seems to have a history of longevity. The family's matriarch, Alberta Martin of Pacific Grove, Calif., is 98, and the family's patriarch, Marcus Flannigan of Cleveland, is 90, Bailey said.
Bailey wants to thank the reunion committee for their efforts to make the event a success. They include, Marie Maclin, Carrie Wiggins, Alice Moore, Doris Hawkins Lowrance and Martha McWilliams.