Reunion conference attracts people who take family togetherness seriously

Gathering focuses on African-Americans

March 11, 2002|By Nora Achrati | Nora Achrati,SUN STAFF

It was a family affair at the Inner Harbor during the weekend.

Nearly 200 family reunion planners and would-be planners came to Baltimore for the 12th African American Family Reunion Conference, coordinated by the Family Reunion Institute at Temple University in Philadelphia. It was the first time the conference has met since 1999 and the first time it has been held outside Philadelphia.

Participants went to workshops, heard family reunion advocates and caught up with family and friends at the three-day conference at the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel, which ended yesterday.

"We've met a lot of people here who've known people in my family, a lot of family friends," said Baltimore merchant Ruby Shaw, who came Saturday to learn how to organize a reunion.

Stephanie Trice of Washington stopped at the Maryland tourism table to get information for a reunion she's planning for July. Most of her extended family lives in North Carolina, and many of them have never seen the Washington area, she said.

"I want to have it in Greenbelt," she told the tourism representative.

Four members of the Proctor-Wright family came from New York City to learn ways to encourage younger Proctors and Wrights to get involved in family reunion planning.

"I came to the 1999 conference, too," said Proctor-Wright reunion coordinator Ellen Ruth Chapman, whose mother and cousin were with her. "We try to bring another young person every time."

Her niece, Kimberly Simmons, was headed to an organizing and funding workshop. The last Proctor-Wright reunion had 250 family members, Chapman said.

Most African-American family reunions have between 50 and 150 participants, according to Ione D. Vargus, founder of the Family Reunion Institute. Vargus, who has studied African-American family reunions since the 1950s, said almost 50 percent of African-Americans go to family reunions regularly.

"The family reunion -- the extended family -- is very important to a number of things," Vargus said. "To a sense of identity, a sense of belonging, a sense of values."

Conference co-planner Weller R. Thomas Jr., publisher of Pathfinders Travel, a Philadelphia-based travel magazine oriented toward African-American families, said the move out of Philadelphia "breathed some new life" into the conference.

"By being in Baltimore, you reach probably the largest concentration of African-Americans in the country," Thomas said.

The conference cost the state $35,000. Courtney Funn, deputy assistant of the tourism division at the Department of Business and Economic Development, said it's worth Maryland money to attract reunion planners to the state.

"Family reunions are a fast-growing market," she said. "They go to hotels and motels all the time, and nobody's paying them attention. This is the market that has been untapped."

Thomas agrees.

"They understand that you have to invest money to attract business," he said. "African-Americans do more group travel than anyone else on the face of the earth. It's only good business sense to say, let's go after this group."

Twenty-four vendors, including state tourism agencies, travel agencies and financial advisers, had tables set up at the hotel.

"Every destination that was here, they're going to end up getting business, or at least some serious inquiries," Thomas said. "The good will that was established here is going to carry over for some time."

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