Reunions bring families together

African-Americans reconnect across miles and generations - with some advance planning

August 05, 2007|By Arnesa A. Howell | Arnesa A. Howell,Special to The Sun

Benetta Thomas-Jones still remembers the day she first realized the importance of keeping her family's history alive.

"My daughter was home in the summer 2006 from North Carolina Central University in Durham, N.C., and I was talking about Aunt Pat and Aunt Bobbie," recalls Thomas-Jones of the conversation with her daughter Janay. "She looked at me and said, `I don't know who those people are.' She did not know my family."

That mother-daughter chat motivated the 47-year-old personnel security specialist at Fort Meade to take on the challenging task of planning her family's summer reunion in Baltimore.

The Thomas-Ellis reunion in June drew about 60 relatives -- a far cry from the 125 people she had expected -- from Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Mississippi and Maryland.

Still, Thomas-Jones was pleased with the family reunion that this year expanded from its familiar backyard surroundings.

"They thought they'd come to a hotel, go to a picnic, go to dinner and go home," Thomas-Jones says of the event-filled weekend. "But I had planned card parties of spades and bid whist in the hospitality suite of the hotel. Bingo, the kids had crafts and a swim party, and they were playing horseshoes and volleyball on Saturday morning.

"It went very, very well," she says.

"You need to know your family. Elders are out there with all this history and knowledge, and one by one that knowledge and history is going with them," says Thomas-Jones. Younger generations "need to know who they are, and where they came from."

In an era when families are fragmented by distance, the African-American reunion is helping to strengthen the extended family bond. Many of these gatherings expand beyond the down-home picnics with Grandma's potato salad to include hotel banquets with dinner and dancing.

"Summer is a big time for family reunions. It's popular for African-American family reunions," says Ione Vargus, the founder and chairwoman of the Family Reunion Institute at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Vargus says that, proportionately speaking, African-Americans have more family reunions than other groups.

"The major significance of the family reunion for African-Americans is that it's serving as a catalyst to bring back the extended family in a new way," explains Vargus.

"We're moving away from the picnic, the cookout. The African-American family reunion extending to two to three days really has to do with people coming from across the country. It's made like a vacation and has become institutionalized."

Undoubtedly, the hotel and tourism industry has taken notice that the African-American family reunion is big business, with convention and visitors' bureaus promoting historic and cultural sites dedicated to such events.

"It has become very big commercially. The reason: The reunions you see fill hotels in the summer when revenues are down. Family reunions are filling that void," says Vargus.

Family business

Lou Fields, owner of BBH Tours, says his business is evidence that family reunions have a big impact on summer tourism.

"You are looking at millions of dollars being spent in Baltimore," says Fields, who does business with as many as two dozen family reunions a year. "They go to the [National] Great Blacks in Wax Museum, the Reginald F. Lewis [Museum], and they go to the Inner Harbor.

"African-American family reunions want to venture out in the neighborhoods," he says.

With the majority of these travelers visiting relatives or friends, it's no surprise that each summer, families across the country pack up their bags and drive, fly, bus, or ride trains to their hometowns or to centrally located cities to celebrate family through fellowship and food.

After all, these reunions are a chance to socialize and play catch up with seldom-seen relatives.

But planning a successful family reunion isn't all fun and games. It's hard work that requires extensive research, patience and dedication.

"It's not an easy thing to do," says Kimberly Houck of Edgewood, 27, who spent more than six months planning her family's reunion at the Inner Harbor. "You can't go into it thinking it's a piece of cake. You have to be ready for anything."

Despite 10 months of planning, Thomas-Jones encountered a few stumbling blocks of her own. She had to go solo on cooking food for a family picnic June 16 after two helpers were no-shows.

"I started at 7 o'clock Friday night and got done at 8:15 Saturday morning [with] 2 1/2 hours of sleep," says Thomas-Jones of her cooking for the picnic, which was held at Oregon Ridge Park, Beach and Conference Center in Cockeysville.

And an unexpected passing of a relative a short time earlier slashed attendance by more than half, resulting in "a ton" of leftover alcohol and other beverages and food that many family members packed in coolers and took home with them.

Of the outcome, she added, "I'm really, really happy, but I'm glad I'm not doing it next year."

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