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January 9, 2024

Together Again

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Chances are you have at least seen one if not participated in one yourself—a multigenerational family reunion that brings people together from across the country, many times wearing matching T-shirts proudly proclaiming the family name. Indeed, according to Black Meetings and Tourism magazine, such events are “arguably the largest sector of the African American travel and tourism market.”
To learn more about the enduring appeal of these gatherings—celebrated in the 1975 song by The O’Jays, “Family Reunion”—WayMaker Journal turned to Tracey Artis, who has led workshops on how to plan them successfully for the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. In doing so she draws on rich personal history, as the driving force behind the largest Black family reunion event currently staged in the United States.
Around 10,000 people braved the rain to take part in the 34th annual Midwest Black Family Reunion in Cincinnati, Ohio, in August, the last of many similar large-scale celebrations that used to be held in cities across the country. Under the theme “Bold & Beautiful,” the four-day event included music, a parade, celebrations, guest speakers and a job fair.
While their form may have changed through the years, Black family reunions tap into a rich history and heritage. Their birth can be traced back to emancipation, when former slaves began to place news-paper ads searching for family members from whom they had been separated. Today, around 90% of all family reunions are believed to be held by African Americans.
“So often in the Black family, we’re separated geographically,” Artis says. “The whole foundation of Black family reunions was established because of slavery. So often people were sold off and separated—husbands and wives, mothers and children. So Black family reunions were established and created to continue to bring the families back together. Some of them were fortunate… and some of them were not.”
“We can become healthier and stronger… because of things that have been passed down
generation to generation.”
Hearing the elders
That sense of connection Artis speaks of remains important to this day. “I just had my own family reunion in the summer; there were people that I saw that I otherwise wouldn’t see every day,” she says. “It was an amazing time of fellowship and us breaking bread together and the elders telling stories and sharing with us nuggets of wisdom so that we can become healthier and stronger and lead healthier and stronger lives because of things that have been passed down generation to generation.”
This was the eighth year in which Artis headed the Midwest celebrations in Cincinnati (where, she observes, emancipation champion Harriet Tubman crossed the Ohio River to freedom). She took over the responsibility from Cassandra Robinson, who had been director of the event for more than 20 years.
“She told me that God had laid me on her heart and that she knew that her time was winding up to be the director and she was looking to pass the torch,” Artis recalls. “And she said that she had been watching me in the city of Cincinnati and she thought that I was capable of doing it and she asked me would I consider it.”
Artis shadowed her predecessor for two years before taking over the reins in 2014. What does it take to put on such a large event? “It first starts with vision,” Artis says. “Then my next step is always funding and then staff and volunteering.” She follows a template—different groups and organizations take responsibility for the various pavilions (such as health, sports, children, seniors) that are set up. “But me being me, I wanted to make sure that there were always new things added; I didn’t want people to come every year and say, ‘This is the same as last year.’”
As soon as one year’s event closes out, she starts working on the next year. “It’s a huge undertaking, but I’m always up for it because I really feel like it’s what God gave me to do, so he makes the way easy.”
The tradition of citywide Black family events that Cincinnati continues can be traced back to civil rights and women’s rights activist Dorothy Height, who first had the vision to start such group reunions all over the country.
That move was prompted by hearing a journalist say on television that the Black family was becoming extinct, says Artis. “She tracked the journalist down at the CBS affiliate in Washington, D.C., and met with him and shared with him that while our family units may look different than his—he was a white male—she said, ‘We’re still a family. It may be a grandmother raising her grandchildren. It may be a single mom. But we’re still a family unit.’
“And from that conversation and from his purview that she realized he had, she decided that there should be a day across the country, a weekend across the country, where the Black family is celebrated… the whole focus is on the family, so that no matter your age, no matter whether you’re a grandmother, a mother or an auntie, you come and you enjoy the weekend.”
“When we think about our families, we think about them being together.”
A sign of stability Artis believes that family reunions remain important because they celebrate achievement and progress. “So often, when we think about our daily lives, we may be looking at poverty, homelessness, crime, hunger, any of that… those are kind of broken pieces in our story that we work in our communities to bring back together.
“But most often, your family is what is consistent: when you go over to your Nana’s house the family will come together around the dining room table and break bread together. When we think about our families, we think about them being together. So, I think as much as possible when we can still do Sunday dinners and we can still have family reunions and we can still have baby showers and wedding anniversaries and weddings, all those things bring the family together, they’re very important.
“And here’s what I feel like is the strongest piece of the family coming together—that it also shows stability. It shows that we’re consistent. We know at any given time when needed, we can all pull together.”
A communications graduate of Ohio University, Artis brings professional organizational and marketing experience to her passion for celebrating Black families. As a longtime Gospel music industry executive, she has helped represent some of the genre’s biggest names, including Shirley Caesar, Kirk Franklin, Marvin Sapp, Donnie McClurkin, Fred Hammond and Charles Jenkins. She was a guest at the White House for Black Music Month celebration.
Artis has also long been involved in community service, named an “Unsung Hero” by Cincinnati’s Radio One and voted “Most Influential” by the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio Leadership Academy. Among those she has worked with have been local schools and the American Heart Association.
Somehow, in the midst of everything else she is doing, Artis finds time to organize her own family’s reunion. It’s held in a different city every two years, and she has arranged gatherings in Atlanta and Savannah. “It comes pretty easy to me,” she says, “because I’m an event planner and I love planning.”
She credits her mother, Susan Upton Farley, with instilling in her the community-minded spirit and sense of service that drives her. Mom served on the town council in Woodlawn, Ohio, for seven years and as mayor for 20. “I’m her,” Artis says. “I saw her giving back all of our lives. I saw her helping the elderly in the neighborhood. I saw her serving and in church and raising us six children alone, sending us all off to college.
“So, for me, servanthood was just a part of our DNA. I knew that I was always going
to be getting up on the weekends, helping in our community and doing things.”
From an interview with Louis Carr
This article was originally published in the Winter 2022 issue of WayMaker Journal.