Club of Natchezians forms in Chicago

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 9, 2009

NATCHEZ — Saturday morning for former Natchezians Robert Johnson and Mary Anne Foster-Mann started at breakfast with nearly 90 of their friends.

And though the meal was served about 900 miles away from Natchez in Chicago, Johnson, Foster-Mann and the rest of those in attendance all have a Natchez connection.

The breakfast was the latest meeting of the Natchez Connection Breakfast Club that was formed nine months ago to give displaced Natchezians a way to connect with their former home.

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“There was a little group of us that would get together from time to time but it started getting to where the only time we were meeting was at funerals,” said Johnson, one of the group’s organizers. “At one of those funerals I said ‘We are going to have to do something different.’”

And from that meeting the Natchez Connection Breakfast Club was born. The group’s first meeting was at a Chicago pancake house and 40 Natchez-connected people attended. Most in the group grew up in Natchez and still have family living in town.

And over coffee and biscuits, the group reminisces about the good times they had in Natchez.

“We really talk about how we were raised in Natchez and how people are raised today,” Johnson said. “Natchez is a nice little town and we really had it a whole lot better than we thought we did.”

Johnson, who graduated from Sadie V. Thompson High School in 1959, said occasionally during the memory sharing, people will even discover that a connection stronger than just a hometown.

“What is so exciting is when we get to talking and sharing about who we are and how we grew up in Natchez, we start finding out that they are related,” he said. “We have had people say ‘What Johnsons are you from or what Wests are you from?’ and discover that they are cousins or something.”

Right now the group meets every three months and each time they meet, more people come out of the woodwork to reconnect with Natchez, Johnson said. At the second meeting there were more than 70 people in attendance. And at the latest meeting on Saturday there were 89 people in attendance.

Now the group has to meet at a Ramada Hotel because the pancake house could no longer accommodate the large crowd.

Johnson said he was hoping the group would break the 100 mark, but different events conflicted with the group’s breakfast meeting.

Foster-Mann, who also graduated from Sadie V. Thompson in 1959, said the best part of the meetings is establishing a connection with her home.

“When you get up there and start talking about families and I say ‘I’m from the Foster family’ they will say ‘Did you know anyone named Sister Foster or whatever,’” she said. “Sister Foster was my mother, and everyone knew her. There is always a connection to someone.”

And that connection makes people want to come to the meetings, even if that means getting up at 5 a.m. to get to a 10 a.m. meeting. Foster-Mann said some people come from neighboring states. People have come from Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin to be a part of the club.

And even for some living in Chicago, it takes a lot of effort to get to the club meetings.

“One young lady that lived in Natchez and heard about it and wanted to come so badly that she left home at 8 a.m. to get to the meeting by 10,” Foster-Mann said. “She had to take the L and go in the Loop and wait for two buses to get here.

“She won’t have to do that next time. Next time we will pick her up.”

And helping others is one of the purposes of the group Foster-Mann said. They are now collecting money to send a donation to the Worthy Women of Watkins Street Cemetery and are also looking at starting a scholarship fund.

Foster-Mann said they are like a family despite being far away from their Natchez families.

“When I was growing up we would go out on our porch at breakfast and speak to the people around us and check on them,” she said. “That is what is going on now. We are just doing it in Chicago.”