Haven’t seen cousin Carol in a month of Sundays, or heard Aunt Ruth’s howling laughter? Perhaps it’s time to get your relatives together for an old-fashioned family reunion. Since Alex Haley’s Roots aired 20 years ago, there’s been a growing and strengthened sense of African American kinship and lineage expressed through family reunions.
According to a 1993 survey by the Travel Industry Association of America, Dimensions of African American Travel Market, 45% of black travelers have attended family reunions. This time-honored American tradition is also a growing trend in the travel industry, and an expanding market for resort hotels. About 25% of hotel rooms are booked by people attending one of the 200,000 family reunions that take place each year, according to Reunions magazine. While the magazine estimates the average reunion draws 50 attendees, Ione D. Vargus, founder of the Family Reunion Institute in Philadelphia, estimates that the average African American reunion attracts 75-100 attendees.
According to Vargus, family reunions give us the chance to celebrate heritage and kinship, cherish our elders, and strengthen our sense of belonging–first to a family and then to a community. “It’s where values are transmitted,” Vargus says. “It provides a sense of identity, a sense of belonging and concern, along with educational activities and the support of an extended family. Family reunions spanning the generations help to revive the role of the extended family.”
Char McCargo Bah, a genealogist in Alexandria, Virginia, first got interested in getting her family together after attending a seminar on genealogy at a public library. Shortly thereafter, Bah decided to research her own family roots, and eventually put together the first McCargo family reunion. “The most rewarding thing was seeing people come together for the very first time,” she says of her family which traces its roots to Halifax County, Virginia. “Although many of us had never met, or thought that so-and-so had died, we were very eager to come together as a family,” she recalls.
Initially, Bah made up a family newsletter that she gave out at an uncle’s funeral. Then, rather than rely strictly on the memories of family, she went through the telephone books of major U.S. cities looking for other McCargos and sent them the newsletter. The response was slow, but steady. About eight months later, the McCargos had their first mini reunion picnic at Hains Point in Washington, D.C. Bah expected about 50 folks and asked them to bring a dish. By the day’s end, 180 family members had participated, including a cousin from Germany. Since then, the McCargos have met at the family home in Danville, Virginia. Not a week goes by, says Bah, that a family member doesn’t call to find out when the next reunion will be.
SOWING THE SEEDS: GETTING STARTED
Family reunions are no longer limited to a picnic in the park. If the idea is totally new to your family, keep things simple. “You don’t know how much money will be involved and how many people will actually show up,” explains Bah. In