Four generations of family and a host of admirers descended on Calloway United Methodist Church the afternoon oj June 8 for a 100th-birthday salute to Birdie Alston, an icon of the Halls Hill-High View Park community.
“This is a special day for him and for us – he is truly a special person,” said Beulah Sowell Bolton, among the dozens of members of the extended family of “Uncle Birdie” who turned out for the celebration.
Although Alston and his late wife Mable – who died in 2017 at age 96 – had no children of their own, he effectively served as “the patriarch of the family,” said Crystal Pate Wade, a niece who recalled that every time she would visit her aunt and uncle, “there was a lesson to be learned.”
Born June 12, 1919, in McBee, S.C., Alston was the first of what would be eight sons born to his mother over the course of more than two decades. Among the youngest of that brood is Charles Pate, who called him “a great big brother.”
“He really, really helped the family,” Pate recalled.
Being African-American in rural South Carolina in the first half of the 20th century was no picnic; the brothers often found themselves in the fields picking cotton to help supplement the family income.
“That’s behind us,” said brother Jimmy Pate. “You can’t dwell on things too much. Everything worked out. We survived.”
Despite the troubled social and economic times in which they grew up, there was harmony in the family.
“We all got along, and I think we still get along,” Jimmy Pate said.
For Birdie Alston, the quest for a better life led him (and Mable) to the Washington area and, eventually, to a home on North Edison Street in what during the segregation era was one of the communities in Arlington where African-Americans could live. Birdie Alston spent 40 years working at a variety of jobs with Olmstead Oldsmobile, which for many years was a fixture of Wilson Boulevard. He was renowned among family members for the big, brassy new Oldsmobiles he had access to.
“Every time he came down [to visit], it was a different car,” recalled Royetta Alston.
Nephew Gregory Pate was among those who appreciated Birdie and Mable’s large and varied garden – “We are a gardening family: If you don’t see it growing, we’re not eating it,” he said – and recalled his uncle’s one-time fixation with developing the perfect dandelion wine.
One time, Uncle Birdie asked young Gregory to go out and pick as many dandelions as he could. The results was five bags’ worth, all of which were fermented into wine and decanted into lovely bottles.
“They looked good, but I was 10 years old and I never got a sip,” Gregory Pate chuckled.
On the photography front, Alston helped chronicle decades of life in the Halls Hill/High View Park community. Large portions of his collection have been donated to the Arlington Black Heritage Museum and to the county library system’s Center for Local History.
In addition to two of his three surviving brothers, the event featured a host of not just nieces and nephews, not just great-nieces and great-nephews, but a number of great-great nieces and nephews, as well. Two of them – Trinity and Treasure Johnson – delivered poems dedicated to him. Saxophonist Jeremiah Miles, a relative by marriage, got everyone’s heads nodding and toes tapping with musical jams.
Niece Deborah Pate Wilburn, who in her college years had studied her uncle’s history, recalled his years as a civil-rights activist and his love of hunting, photography, fishing and the aforementioned gardening. She noted that he also was active in the local NAACP and John M. Langston Civic Association, as well as the Improved Benevolent Order of the Elks of the World, an African-American fraternal order modeled on Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks, which at the time did not allow black members.
“I just can’t say how happy I am,” Wilburn said of the festivities surrounding her uncle’s centennial.
With just days to go until his 100th birthday, Alston was alert throughout the proceedings and offered a hearty “thank you!” to close them.
His enjoyment was shared by family members.
“We’ve come from both near and far – nothing could keep us away,” said niece Maria Alston Romero, who saluted her uncle’s “life of integrity and honor.”