A little-known holiday called “Colored American Day” just passed on Aug. 25. This year, as people celebrated the 160th anniversary of the gathering and celebration of Blackness, it’s essential to journey into the historical foundations of these reunions, unraveling their significance and their enduring influence on our lives today.
As we bask in the warm embrace of reconnecting with our roots of the holiday, Black family reunions emerge as lively and enduring tributes to our heritage and the unity found in it. These gatherings imbued with the colors of history and the depth of spirituality, stand as poignant reminders of the enduring bonds that tie us across generations.
Colored American Day not only celebrated the achievements and resilience of Black Americans, but it also ignited a spark that would illuminate the tradition of Black family reunions. Emerging in the late 19th century, this commemorative Day provided a platform to recognize the contributions of Black communities in a nation grappling with the legacy of slavery and the challenges of post-Civil War reconstruction. It was during these gatherings that families, scattered by the brutal history of slavery and migration, found a reason to come together. The spirit of unity and solidarity that Colored American Day embodied served as an inspiration for Black families to reunite, transcending geographical boundaries to reconnect with their roots. As African Americans across the country celebrated their collective heritage, these gatherings fostered a sense of belonging and the importance of family ties, becoming a catalyst for the enduring tradition of Black family reunions that continues to flourish today.
The origins of Black family reunions are deeply rooted in the painful legacy of American slavery. During those dark times, the institution systematically tore apart enslaved families, reducing them to mere commodities to be bought and sold. The brutal separation of loved ones left indelible scars, but it also ignited a fierce determination to reunite. The end of slavery symbolized not only newfound freedom but also the hope of reconstituting a sense of familial wholeness.
One step toward reclaiming identity was the act of choosing names. Enslaved individuals were often bestowed with names by their oppressors, names devoid of meaning or significance. However, with freedom came the autonomy to select names that reflected their new status and aspirations.
Many chose to adopt their former masters’ names, not out of affection but out of practicality. This choice allowed them to be identified and was a pragmatic step towards redefining themselves as free people. Moreover, formal marriage ceremonies, discouraged during slavery, became a symbol of commitment and agency for many newly emancipated couples. The act of choosing names and formalizing marriages represented not only a legal transition but also a profound act of self-determination.
In the wake of emancipation, African-American women faced unique challenges in their quest for equality. Their rights as wives, mothers, and women were constantly questioned, and they were denied the right to vote. Yet, they persevered, both within and outside their communities, in their pursuit of equal status.
As African Americans rebuilt their lives post-emancipation, the search for family members who had been separated or sold away became a focal point. The number of years of separation did not deter people from hoping to reunite with lost loved ones. Newspaper advertisements, letters, and word of mouth were all employed as part of the search. The hope was that a positive response might lead to a reunion with family members. However, the transition to freedom was not an easy one.
Enslaved individuals had been stripped of their names, rights, and identity. This created numerous challenges as families, married couples, parents, and children attempted to locate one another. Formal marriage ceremonies were not encouraged by slaveholders and were a rarity for the enslaved. With freedom, many formerly enslaved men and women participated in official ceremonies to reinforce their commitment to one another or for legal purposes. As husbands and wives, they also renegotiated their roles together as free people.
Black women faced a struggle to gain respect for their rights as wives, mothers, and women. Both within and outside their communities, their quest for equal status was questioned. Among other things, they were denied the right to vote, scrutinized if they chose not to work, and subjected to harassment and physical abuse. Defining and defending their place within American society remained a challenge throughout the years after the end of slavery.
Enslaved parents had no legal rights to their children. Their offspring could be taken away or expected to obey the orders of others despite the preferences of their parents. As free people, African Americans resisted outside efforts to undermine their parental authority or to take their children away through court-ordered apprenticeships to a white person. They wanted to ensure their influence and love were the most important factors in their children’s lives.
While newly freed individuals endeavored to reunite with their loved ones despite these challenges, in many cases, newspapers and letters weren’t enough to prompt a reunion. Ultimately, the separation of the family proved to be so effective a tool of oppression to disempower African Americans that its legacy persisted long after the abolishment of slavery.
Public interest in family reunification was revived in 1976 after the publication of Alex Haley’s book “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” The book tells the story of Kunta Kinte, an 18th-century African captured as an adolescent, sold into slavery in Africa, and transported to North America. It follows his life and the lives of his descendants in the United States down to Haley, the book’s author. The release of the novel, combined with its hugely popular television adaptation, “Roots” in 1977, led to a cultural sensation in the United States.
“Roots” inspired many previously splintered African-American families to search and document their own family genealogy. Utilizing a variety of tools such as publicly available archives, slave sale records, family Bibles, and blood tests, many attempted to trace their ancestral roots to slavery and African villages. However, even with the advantages of modern technology, many today must still grapple with incomplete family histories as a direct result of their ancestors being defined, by law, as little more than property.
Today, the African-American community continues to honor its heritage through the tradition of family reunions. These gatherings are not just festive occasions but opportunities to recount family history, teach traditions, and forge unbreakable bonds through shared memories. Family reunions often take place in locations with historical significance, strengthening the connection to their roots.
Music plays a pivotal role in these reunions, infusing joy and unity into the celebrations. The O’Jays’ iconic song, “Family Reunion,” has become an anthem for these gatherings, embodying the spirit of coming together and celebrating the enduring bonds of kinship.
Another hallmark of the modern African-American family reunion is commemorative items such as programs, group photos, and T-shirts that put a tangible stamp on the importance of family ties.
Families much like that of Delina Wilson’s, an extraordinary 87-year-old Detroit native with a remarkable journey that spans generations and weaves through the rich tapestry of American history. Wilson’s roots stretch back to Laurel, Mississippi, a place where her family toiled as sharecroppers and her grandparents were children of enslaved people. In the annals of history, her family was among the countless African Americans who were displaced during the Great Migration.
However, despite the hardships and challenges, Delina’s family held onto a sacred tradition that has bound them together for generations. Since she was a young girl of ten, her family had established an annual picnic tradition under the comforting shelter of a shed in their Mississippi hometown. It was a tradition that transcended time and distance, drawing cousins, aunties, uncles, sisters, brothers, and all connected by blood and love. In 1958, Delina and her husband embarked on a life-altering journey when they packed up and headed north to Detroit. They were drawn to the city by the promise of work at the Ford plant. Little did they know that this decision would not only shape their future but also continue the cherished family tradition in an entirely new setting.
For the past six decades, every third weekend in June, Delina Wilson and her family have faithfully embarked on a remarkable journey of love and unity. Their mission? To create a family reunion that transcends generations and geographical boundaries. This gathering brings together over 200 family members from all corners of the country, converging on a designated city where they come to do more than just celebrate—it’s a time to remember, reconnect, and rekindle the flames of their shared history.
“In Mississippi, family was the rock we leaned on, the roots that kept us grounded,” Wilson expressed. “We may have scattered like seeds in the wind, but that Mississippi soil runs deep in our veins, bindin’ us together no matter where we roam.”
In Delina’s own words, “Our family reunion is not just a gathering; it’s a living testament to the strength of our bonds and the resilience of our lineage.” As they gather, they share cherished recipes that have been passed down through generations, filling the air with the aroma of tradition. They raise their voices in old family hymns, their harmonies echoing through the years. Yet, most significantly, they engage in profound discussions about their family’s history—a history that reflects the broader narrative of African-American experiences in this nation. Delina, a matriarch and storyteller, holds a treasure trove of anecdotes and wisdom, and she passionately imparts the lessons of their ancestors to the eager ears of the younger generations. Through her words, the family’s collective memory is preserved, and their heritage is celebrated.
“Thank the good Lord above and my dear ancestors watchin’ over us from that great beyond. We ain’t here just ‘cause of where we come from, but because of the strength and love that carried us through. We owe it all to them and the Almighty’s blessin’s.”
As we reflect on the legacy of Black family reunions, we must acknowledge the resilience of a people who, despite enduring centuries of oppression, continue to come together in unity, love, and celebration. In the face of adversity, these reunions stand as a testament to the enduring power of family, heritage, and the unyielding spirit of the African-American community. We move forward, knowing that our connection transcends biology, and in those moments of coming together, we become a united body, as envisioned in Psalm 133:1-3.
‘How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there, the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.’