WAFB ARCHIVES: Former Mississippi sharecropping family, all college graduates, reunite for Thanksgiving meal

(CBS) - Thanksgiving is about sharing, so we want to share something with you. In 1978, CBS news' "On The Road" segment was hosted by Charles Kuralt. He found a family of 11 in Prairie, Mississippi, all coming home for Thanksgiving. Here now, from the WAFB archives is Charles Kuralt's original report on the Chandler family called their rise from humble beginnings the "ultimate American success story."

A long road took nine children out of the cotton fields, out of poverty, out of Mississippi. But roads go both ways, and this Thanksgiving weekend, they all returned. This is about Thanksgiving, and coming home.

"There's my daddy," says Gloria Chandler Coleman, master of arts, University of Missouri, a teacher in Kansas City.

All nine children had memories of a sharecropper's cabin and nothing to wear and nothing to eat. All nine are college graduates. Cooking the meal in the kitchen of the new house the children built for their parents four years ago is Bessie Chandler Beasley, BA Tuskegee, MA Central Michigan, dietician at a veterans hospital, married to a PhD. And helping out, Princess Chandler Norman, MA Indiana University, a schoolteacher in Gary, Indiana. You'll meet them all.

But first, I thought you ought to meet their parents. Alex Chandler remembers the time when he had a horse and a cow and tried to buy a mule and couldn't make the payments and lost the mule, the horse, and the cow. And about that time, Cleveland, the first son, decided he wanted to go to college.

"We didn't have any money," says Alex. "And we went to town; he wanted to catch the bus to go on up there. And so we went to town and borrowed two dollars and a half from her niece, and bought him a bus ticket. And when he got there, that's all he had."

From that beginning, he became Dr. Cleveland Chandler. He is chairman of the economics department at Howard University. How did they do it, starting on one of the poorest farms in the poorest part of the poorest state in America?

"We worked," says Princess Chandler Norman.

Kuralt asked if Norman had picked cotton. "Yes, picked cotton," Norman replied. "And pulled corn, stripped millet, dug potatoes."

They all left. Luther left for the University of Omaha and went on to become the Public Service Employment Manager for Kansas City. He helped his younger brother, James, come to Omaha University, too, and go on to graduate work at Yale. And in his turn, James helped Herman, who graduated from Morgan State and is a technical manager in Dallas. And they helped themselves. Fortson, a Baptist minister in Pueblo, Colorado, wanted to go to Morehouse College.

"I chose Morehouse and it was difficult," Chandler said. "I had to pick cotton all summer long to get the first month's rent and tuition."

So, helping themselves and helping one another, they all went away. And now, fifty years after life began for the Chandler family in a one-room shack in a cotton field, now, just as they were sitting down in the new house to the ham and turkey and sweet potatoes and cornbread and collard greens and the two kinds of pie and three kinds of cake, now Donald arrived -- the youngest -- who had driven with his family all the way down from Minneapolis. And now the Chandlers were all together again.

"Our Father in heaven, we come at this moment, giving thee thanks for thou has been so good and so kind," Alex Chandler prays while saying grace. "We want to thank you, oh God, for this, for your love and for your son. Thank you that you have provided for all of us through all these years."

Remembering all those years of sharecropping and going hungry and working for a white man for fifty cents a day and worrying about his children's future, remembering all that, Alex Chandler almost didn't get through this blessing. And neither did the others.

The Chandler family started with as near nothing as any family in America ever did. And so their Thanksgiving weekend might have been more thankful than most.

"I'll Fly Away" is the name of an old hymn. It is Mr. Chandler's favorite. His nine children flew away, and made places for themselves in this country; and this weekend, came home again.

There probably are no lessons in any of this, but I know that in the future whenever I hear that the family is a dying institution, I'll think of them. Whenever I hear anything in America is possible, I'll think of them.

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