It’s six o’clock in the morning. A beautiful, mercifully cool summer Sunday morning. The final day of the three-day Stokes Folks Family Reunion. My father’s side of the family. Father’s mother’s side to be exact. Stokes to Ford to Frazier. I’m sitting in a gazebo in a tiny park along one of the main streets in the Old Town section of Manassas, Virginia. Sitting and writing in my journal. It’s mid-July, 1997, yet suddenly I’m thinking of April, for being in Manassas can’t help but remind one of the Civil War in all its gore and glory, and I know quite distinctly—as a piece of trivia perhaps—that that war began at 4:50 AM on April 12, my birthday, except in 1861. And that war also ended in April, in 1865. And my oldest daughter, Eliisa, was born on April 11, my father on April 4, and his mother on April 7. In fact, my great-great grandmother, Lydia Iverson, was born a slave on a plantation in Danville, VA, in April 1850, and her future husband, Joseph Stokes, whom she met and married in Alexandra, VA, shortly after the Civil War—and was never a slave, we think—was also born in April, in 1847. Hence, I think of April and family, of Virginia and Manassas and the Civil War.

After my great-great grandparents were married they migrated to Manassas Junction, where they lived in a house on—appropriately—Liberty Street, just across the railroad tracks from Old Town. They worked for a white family named Davies, who owned a blacksmith shop. Joseph learned the blacksmith trade from that family and eventually opened his own shop, where his sons worked right along side him. Lydia was part of a group that met with Reverend Marshall Downing Williams on the Old School House yard in 1872 to found the First Baptist Church—which is where we Stokes Folks plan to worship later this morning—a whole year before the town of Manassas was officially founded.

Lydia and Joseph had 11 children, the oldest of whom was my great grandmother Chanie, born in 1870, who married Winter William Ford, the boyfriend of a girlfriend, on her birthday in 1891. They established a home next door to her parents on Liberty Street and had eight children, the oldest of whom was my grandmother, Ruth.

My great-great grandmother’s house still stands in Manassas, which is reason enough for us to have had our reunion here. “Our Town,” so to speak.

Dear Eliisa,

He looked like a cross between Freddy Kruger and Elmer Fudd. White male. About 55, I guess. Thick glasses, pale skin, awful-looking toupee. Manager of the Olde Town Inn right on Main Street in Manassas, Virginia. A musty, creaky old motel where most of the family was staying for the family reunion. When Mommy, Katja, and I opened the door to our room, we said silently yet collectively:“Oh, no!  A Bates Motel!” The beds hadn’t been made up yet and trash was strewn around the room from the previous tenants—some wild-partying construction workers who’d probably tumbled out of bed and stumbled through the door early that morning to go to work or whatever. And Mommy immediately said aloud:“Eliisa wouldn’t go for this. She’d demand that we find a ‘more suitable place.’” Katja and I nodded in agreement.

On a hot July day in 1861, the First Battle of Manassas, indeed the first real battle of the Civil War, was waged on the fields overlooking Bull Run. Gonna be a short war, all the white folks in D.C. figured. That’s one reason they came down those 30 miles southwest from the nation’s capital in carriages and carrying picnic baskets to check out the eager but green young recruits in colorful new uniforms going out enthusiastically to battle. Gonna capture the Confederate capital at Richmond, they were. Gonna nip the South’s ole rebellion in the bud. But the North didn’t realize how wide the divide was, how deep the schism, how intractable the South’s need to be free to enslave us—Lydia and Joseph and all us Stokes folks way back when. Southern Generals Johnston and Beauregard maneuvered well, General Thomas Jackson stood like a stone wall, and the North’s General MacDowell’s retreat back to D.C. became a rout when his troops stumbled over panicked picnickers and incredulous Congressmen. The Confederate troops, however, were too exhausted to pursue the northern boys, so everything stalled, stopped, for the moment.

About five thousand men killed, wounded, captured, or missing. A drop in the bloody bucket really, for the deadliest war in America’s history had only just begun.

I’m not particularly fond of Manassas, but I do appreciate the solitude it’s affording me at the moment in a town center that, if I squint, I can easily imagine as some Hollywood studio back lot. Must be the play of the morning light on the quaint, charming Old Town structures recreated and restored to attract tourist dollars to a place of fine historical significance to these United States. Squint more tightly and I swear I can see the Manahoac and Doeg Indians who where “displaced” in the 1600’s by white settlers who built farms, churches, and mills.  Incipient manifest destiny.

The manager only had one key to give us when we registered, and although he faithfully promised us a second one, we never got it. Our toilet sink was both leaking and stopped up: if you can imagine such a bizarre contradiction. The harried plumber didn’t behave much like one because he tried to fix the sink with simply a wrench—no other tools, no snake for cleaning out the drainpipes. (The officious manager, who was constantly shaking my hand as though profusely apologizing for all past, present, and future problems at his glorious motel, had come in earlier and dumped some Drano down the drain. I’d wanted to tell him that that probably wouldn’t work, but he’d looked so hopeful, as well as so completely out of touch with reality, that I’d simply kept my mouth shut.)

The manager had also issued us a little gray TV remote control. I suppressed asking him why that little remote was so valuable. I mean who would steal a remote if he couldn’t get the damn TV out of the room with it? In any event, the remote only brought us—mostly Katja—certain channels because the motel was in the process of converting its cable system. Or not. The manager had told us that, but I had the sneaking suspicion that he either didn’t have the slightest idea what he was talking about or that he was patently lying.

Suddenly, a voice breaks the Manassas silence. It’s William, the husband of one of my first cousins. He’s lumbering down the street carrying a few grocery items. A big, bearded bear of a man, affable and quick-witted, he comes to the gazebo to talk. A whole weekend of activities—reception, picnic, banquet—our family taking more than half of the quaintly if not rather insouciantly run Olde Town Inn just a couple of blocks away. A whole weekend, yet William and I haven’t had a chance to talk, to catch up on things. I’m a writer living in New York who grew up in D.C.; he’s a judge living in D.C. who attended New York University Law School. We’re a family of primarily professional people now: doctors, lawyers, educators, architects, ministers, accountants.

We speak of wives and kids, of extended family and fine food, of ceremony and ritual and lasting presences. We joke, jive around, tell little “white” lies, make plans for our families to get together sooner or later—most likely later. A splendid Sunday morning, although we’re dressed casually because it’s too early to get ready for services at the First Baptist Church just up the road on Center Street—the family’s final gathering of its reunion weekend.

Now, the electrical system in the room was sort of advanced Stone Age. The light switch just inside the door had to be turned on if you wanted any of the other things in the room run by electricity to work. Okay, no problem with the lamps. But remember, we also had a TV. And a sawed-off refrigerator and a sputtering microwave oven, which I dubbed “The Little Micro That Could.” And of course they all ran by electricity, not by windmill power or horse power, although I bet that at one time in the past they did—like maybe last year. So what happened? Every time we turned off the light switch at the door, either to leave the room or simply kill all the lights with one fell swoop, the TV and refrigerator and microwave would go off. Hence, Katja was forever having to get up and turn on and adjust the cable box again. (So much for our preciously guarded remote control.) And the microwave’s clock consistently showed . . . no time at all. As for the refrigerator? Well, let’s just say that we didn’t use it.

Unbeknownst to me and William, another part of our scene is being played out behind our backs.

If this were a movie, we’d cut now to a long shot of the two of us in the gazebo as seen from someone else’s point of view. The shot would last just long enough to stir a sense of foreboding and dramatic irony in the viewer. Then cut to a close-up of a sinister-looking white police officer sitting behind the wheel of a car. Finally, cut back to me and my cousin.

Still standing, William begs to move on. I bid him farewell. As I do, I turn my head slightly to the left and notice the police car out of the corner of my eye. I immediately tense up. Why hadn’t William mentioned the car being there? He certainly couldn’t have missed it. Why hadn’t he jumped at the opportunity to comment on the persistence of racism and stereotypes in America? . . .  Perhaps because commenting about it would only have made us incredibly angry and spoiled our day before it had barely started.

The Second Battle of Manassas was far bloodier than the first. It essentially pitted General John Pope’s Army of Virginia against new commander General Robert E. Lee’s troops, ironically called the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee’s brilliant strategizing led to a Southern victory and his eventual invasion of the North. If news had traveled fast that late summer, my great-great grandmother, at the ripe young age of 12, might have feared ever being freed from bondage.

But the reunion itself was great, Eliisa. Too bad you had to be away at camp. Very good food, great company, relaxing and hectic. There was also a small, fenced-in swimming pool. (Yes, this was the Bates Motel, but no, the pool was much more than a muddy hole in the ground like that of that aging starlet in Sunset Boulevard.) And our banquet facilities at the motel were fine, just right. So it was a great weekend, especially since we all got away with our lives. Neither Norman nor his mother made an appearance, and the manager was, at bottom, much more Fudd than Freddy.

Still, I’m sure you would have pined for a room at the Embassy Suites: two TV’s, bedroom and living room, sensibly wired electricity, sparkling sink, and a bathroom bigger than a broom closet. We sure did, or at least we dreamed of it, as an antidote to nightmares about axes and hysterical teenagers and gushing blood.

See you in a couple of weeks.



With my cousin gone the little main street grows quiet once again, only this time numbingly so. I turn to face the cop car squarely. Not defiantly, more with a manufactured look of curiosity. But the cop doesn’t get out. He simply pulls away in his shiny, squeaky-clean car. I watch it turn a corner and disappear from view into my Hollywood set. . . .

“Car 54, Where Are You?”

Cut.  End of scene. But not a wrap by a long shot.

And what had that cop been waiting for on such a splendid Sunday morning? Why, for two niggers to even look like they was gonna be about some trouble, that’s what. But then when my cousin left me alone . . . .

Well, two niggers might spell some kinda trouble, but one just sittin’ on his ass writing? Shit, boy, that don’t spell nothin’ at all. Not anymore, anyway. After all, this ain’t 1850.

     P.S. – Long live the Stokes Folks!

A train whistle sounds and causes me to shiver reflexively. It’s Amtrak’s Cardinal, which still has a stop in Manassas. Manassas Junction, where the Orange & Alexandria and Manassas Gap railroads used to run as a major link to Washington, D.C., which is where most of us Stokes Folks migrated to just after the turn of the 20th century. The Cardinal on its way back and forth between D.C. and Chicago, still running right through the center of this quintessential southern town, still chugging and screeching right through the heart of the matter.

Kermit Frazier

Kermit’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such publications as Black World, Callaloo, The Chicago Review, Green Mountains Review, The Missouri Review, American Theatre, and The New York Times Book Review. Consequence published his nonfiction piece “Ignobled in Indianapolis” in July 2020. In addition, his more than twenty plays have been produced in New York and around the country, and his television-writing work includes being a head writer for the popular children’s mystery series Ghostwriter. His work as a playwright was recently spotlighted in a New York Times feature article. Frazier is an Air Force Veteran.

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