Black Family Reunions: The Past and Present

Black family reunions.

Matching t-shirts, picnics, whiffs of tender BBQ floating through the air, line-dancing, everyone getting along… well getting along most of the time. You know what I’m talking about. Oh yes, the black family reunion, baby!

61st Douglass Family Reunion

It’s a pretty standard concept and most of us have been to one, whether we bounce through every few years or attend regularly. You always know when family reunion season hits because summer weekends get clogged with festivities and you can spot those t-shirts anywhere! I should know, I have about 17 from my childhood.

Black families have reunions to get together, preserve family culture and traditions, share information, and celebrate each and every member that makes up the family. We don’t get together every year simply to party, eat potato salad, play Bid Whist (my family ain’t the only one), and share laughs. It’s much deeper than that for us.

Painful family histories bring us closer together

Like many of our traditions, black family reunions have roots entangled in African ancestry and American slavery. We share a painful history that manifests in family nurturing, bonding, and intentional preservation. Our early ancestors were ripped away from African family members who watched helplessly as their loved-ones were drug and chained in their final voyage across the ocean.

During slavery, black families were torn apart quite often with the slam of a gavel, as members watched their loved-ones sold away on auction blocks. Small children were snatched from their mother’s arms. Husbands and wives were often separated within minutes, never to be seen again. The hard and loving work of marriage just gone in an instant. Aunts, uncles, cousins and friends plucked from family units and shipped off to other slave plantations. Human lives pulled apart and disbursed across the south like sheep and cattle.

Slavery gave no respect to the black family, but still, we rose. 

We made our own traditions and followed our own rituals to uphold our families, despite all the hardships against us. We could not legally marry, so we jumped brooms. We weren’t allowed to read, but we learned anyway and huddled in the darkness at night to pass the coveted knowledge to other family members. We couldn’t openly praise and worship, so we went to CHUCH (a.k.a. “church” in standard English) and had “hush harbors” (praying in secret) in the darkness, way behind the slave quarters. You see, slaves were not allowed to congregate or worship in groups for fear they may rise up and revolt against their masters. Imagine having to secretly worship your God!

Oak Alley Plantation slave quarters

My slave ancestors went to great lengths to uphold the traditions and values of our families, because family is all we had during the treacherous era of American bondage and captivity. As slaves were freed, some of our ancestors spent years looking for those long-lost slaves violently separated years before. In rare events, family members were found. But all too commonly, they were never heard from again. This pain left gaping wounds in hearts and holes in family trees. As many families stayed south, others packed up and migrated north, further separating themselves from their original family unit.

After slavery, black families continued to experience hardships and institutional barriers that threatened our sustainability through the Jim Crow and Civil Rights Movement eras. As blacks assimilated into white culture, the older relatives were tasked with passing down family history and traditions. In some cases, “word of mouth” was the official family record.

Alex Haley’s “Roots” was a turning point for the black family

Black families were determined to maintain our roots and traditions despite all the measures that kept us apart. After Alex Haley’s Roots was published in 1976, the motivation and interest to discover black family roots accelerated and increased in momentum. The powerful story resulted in black families uncovering their genealogy and tracing their ancestral roots to slavery and African villages at record numbers. The era totally redefined family, and hence the black family reunion became a common tradition practiced by many families around the country. Around the same time, the O’Jays released their popular song entitled “Family Reunion.”

The family historian

Because many slave and post-slave records were destroyed or never existed to begin with, our family members kept beloved records in sacred places like family Bibles. Given that these blessed books are often stored in special places, upheld, and passed on through the generations with tender care, it makes sense why they were a popular place to record and keep such important information.

In many cases, the records only go back several generations, as long as the matriarch or patriarch could remember. Gaps and holes in slave family trees probably point to limited recollection or missing data, as many of our ancestors were very poor and lacked the resources to formally record such information. Other reasons may be that ancestors were sold away or illiterate slaves were unable to write the record.

Forty years after the publication of Roots, families have expanded so much that it is almost impossible to trace without a dedicated person maintaining the official record. Many generations away from slavery, some of our families have grown to hundreds and hundreds of family members with so many clusters and branches that it is hard to keep up. It takes a dedicated and determined individual to maintain the family data. Many families have a family historian, charged with keeping the sacred ancestral records of those that came before us and adding the babies as they come. And it’s quite a task!

Family reunions today

Family reunions are fun and celebratory! Although the painful past still resonates in our collective family psyche, it’s a time of socializing, networking, fellowship, and catching up. However, family reunions aren’t just about reuniting. They aren’t even just about hosting a family weekend. It’s a more complicated concept, an event and a verb that happens on an ongoing basis.

Some family reunions are very serious business! It’s where official records are shared and decisions are made. Aside from maintaining the family records, many families have executive boards, bylaws, planning committees, monthly meetings, etc. If your family is like mine, there is a formal structure for decision-making, communications, and event-planning. Others are less formal and don’t necessarily meet on a schedule but still get together for an awesome summer event.

Today’s family reunions can get quite fancy! After months of intense planning to make sure everything is in order, annual reunions include but are not limited to picnics, formal dinners, talent shows, the reiteration of family history and slide shows to remember those that passed before us. Family awards are also wildly popular, for example, awarding the youngest member, oldest member, branch with the most reunion attendance (this can get really competitive over the years), and family member that traveled the farthest.

Regional family reunions. Because “Family” is more than just one family

In addition to family branch reunions, some cities also have regional family reunions that bring people together based on state origins. Here in Chicago, you may run into an “Arkansas Family Reunion” or “Mississippi Family Reunion” picnic in our Forest Preserve that transcends many families across the city. Given that a great deal of our Chicagoan ancestors migrated “due north,” so many of our roots map right back down to the Mississippi Delta.

Family reunions are a way of life

When so much is happening in the world, kids are dying on the street, and we appear to outsiders to be against each other, there is always family. The black family is commonly misunderstood by mainstream America. But on the inside, we have a common understanding that family business is not to be taken lightly and we continue to uphold the seriousness of coming together in peace. Our ideals and respect for family date back to slavery, when family was all we had.

Family represents love, hope, and the circle of life. Through family we remember where we came from and where we are going. I encourage everyone to keep loving on their family members until the end of time!

Share this blog if you love your family’s traditions or attend a family reunion!

This article was first published on Sassy Plum