Jenny Scarborough
Henry Pigott
Henry Pigott
Core Sound Waterfowl and Heritage Museum photograph

Saturday, April 28 is the 2012 Portsmouth Island Homecoming.

More than 500 people, many genealogically tied to Portsmouth, attended the 2010 Homecoming.  The event, "Portsmouth Lives," is hosted in the spring of even years by the non-profit Friends of Portsmouth and the National Park Service.

"It's very emotional, even though I have no connection," said Jim Fineman, a Manteo potter, who came down for his second Homecoming.

Descendants of former Portsmouth residents receive a name tag with a mosquito graphic; everyone else receives a welcoming smile and a commemorative pin.  Conversation between strangers strikes up during the walk from Haulover Point dock into the village.

I learn from a Willis family descendant that Dot Willis, the last native islander alive, born in 1921, accepted a helicopter ride rather than endure the choppy waters of Pamlico Sound.

On Homecoming days, enough visitors arrive to re-populate Portsmouth, most ferrying in from Ocracoke in skiffs.  The crowd is a mix of young and old, a slice of middle America toting coolers and casseroles for the pot luck meal.

Hoi Toid accents can be heard, but folks also journeyed from as far as Maine and California.  A snappy breeze keeps the notorious mosquitoes at bay;  the sun feels like a benediction.

The much admired Henry Pigott home.
The much admired Henry Pigott home.
NPS photograph

The morning is devoted to visiting the post office, school and homes with displays of traditional craft, like wooden boat building, net mending and quilting.  Around 11 a.m. people gather at the Methodist Church at the village's heart, and hymns drift on the air.

Following the hymn sing, everyone gathers for a brief ceremony where the Portsmouth diaspora is honored.  Clusters of Williams, Newtons, Salters, Carters, Dixons, Roberts, Gilgos and Willises stand to heartfelt applause, which is also extended to those attending their first Homecoming.  Dot Willis' handwritten history of Portsmouth is read, and Connie Mason sings a wistful song she composed for Marian Babb.

Rudy Carter reads Psalm 121 from a huge, worn and darkly bound Bible that belonged to Henry Pigott, Portsmouth's last male resident.  Carter is "of African descent" and recognizes himself among the "many names and many children" of Portsmouth.  For all those who once lived on Portsmouth there is a moment of silence.

Voices both powerful and hesitant join to sing Amazing Grace with a reverence that feels appropriate, and reminiscent of a hopeful time.  Not every eye remains dry. 

When the ceremony adjourns, the feast of ham, white beans and potato salad begins.

This article first appeared in the June 2010 Island Breeze.