The Family Reunion Trip: It’s All Relatives

The Fisher history closely tracks that of many African American families. They are the descendants, by blood or marriage, of Orange and Berry Fisher, two brothers born in the late 1800s in Lancaster County, South Carolina. Both took up cotton and potato farming and, between them, fathered 16 children. The brothers died in the 1950s. Their descendants have been meeting every two years since the late 1990s.

The organizing committee expected between 150 and 200 family members to attend in Atlanta. At the registration desk, they traded hugs and picked up their green-and-gold reunion T-shirts (blue for organizers) and the three-day program.

The kickoff was low-key — a reception in the ballroom, followed by a buffet supper of fried chicken, potato salad and baked beans served on paper plates. Emotions rolled through the room.

When just about any family member spoke, it was clear that the strongest thread that bound them was a respect for family ties. “My grandaddy always talked about how we should all find our way back to be in one place together,” said one. “In some ways, this is the fulfillment of his dream.”

Reunions have become more sophisticated, multi-dimensional and, in many cases, grander.

Once hosted in private homes or churches, they are now most often held in luxury hotels. Special reunion web sites and customized t-shirts are also common. Some families form nonprofit associations and use the funds raised to offer scholarships, buy real estate or assist family members in need.

The Fishers charged $80 per person for adults and $30 for children, not including travel; kids under 6 were free. That rate included most meals and entertainment; t-shirts and bus excursion were extra. The total cost was around $10,000, according to the reunion chair.

The first full day of the gathering started with the official family meeting started. This session, a standard feature of reunions, is where family business is discussed, including genealogy research, legal matters and fundraising concerns. The biggest issue was where to hold the next reunion.

The reunion organizers had deliberately crafted a program that featured a variety of voices. “We wanted everybody to see how fantastically their cousins sing or how well they make speeches. What better way to generate family pride and inspire the younger generation?”

In the afternoon, members visiting Atlanta for the first time, climbed on a bus chartered by the committee to see the city’s African American heritage sites. At the first stop, Ebenezer Baptist Church, a guide spoke about the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., who was pastor of the church during the 1960s. Across the street, at the King Center, the group watched videotapes of civil rights marches. Finally, they stopped at King’s tomb, next door to the church.

For many, the day’s richest moment was the formal dinner and dance. Uncles, aunts and cousins fanned into the hotel ballroom dressed in chic evening gowns and natty suits. Over dinner of baked salmon, broiled vegetables and petits fours, they listened to tribute paid to family elders and the names of the eldest and youngest family members, those who had recently graduated from high school and college, and those who had done military duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

No sooner were the tables cleared and the benediction said than an Atlanta deejay broke out the Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and other soul and R&B oldies. The dance floor filled quickly and, for three hours, stayed packed.

No African American reunion is complete without a worship service. For the Fishers, the kind of loyal Baptists who open the church on Sunday mornings, it would be a centerpiece event. And so, early Sunday morning, decked out in stylish dresses, suits and hats, the extended family filed into the ballroom for the last time.

Eventually, though, they began to chat with one another. Three days of reconnecting, dancing, touring and laughing had bonded them, and it was hard for them to get up and leave.

From a story by Gary Lee in The Washington Post, Washington DC.