The Family Reunion Trip: It's All Relatives

Fisher family members dance the electric slide during a dinner at the Hilton Atlanta Hotel, one of many events held during their 2005 biennial family union.
Fisher family members dance the electric slide during a dinner at the Hilton Atlanta Hotel, one of many events held during their 2005 biennial family union. (Photos By Tracey Brown For The Washington Post)
By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 8, 2006

Regina Belle raised her velvety voice and belted out a gospel tune that left the Atlanta Hilton ballroom in awed silence. For the Grammy-winning recording artist, the song may not have been as snazzy as "Baby Come to Me," "A Whole New World" or her other smash hits. But the audience -- a biennial gathering of 165 cousins, uncles, aunts and other relatives -- made the performance unforgettably poignant.

"In here, I am not a star. I am one member of an extraordinary family," she said. "And this is no regular meeting. It's an extraordinary reunion."

Was it ever. The three-day Fisher Family Reunion 2005, held Labor Day weekend, included three gospel performances, two moving speeches (including a resounding tribute to the institution of family), a sightseeing excursion, a gourmet candlelight dinner and a Saturday night R&B dance that jammed into Sunday morning.

Spectacular? For sure. Unique? Not really. During the same weekend, 21 other major African American family shindigs were taking place around the Peachtree City, according to the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau.

For African Americans, reunions are the next big thing. The general population may be drawn to increasingly popular couples-only resorts and other venues designed to escape the din of relatives, but African Americans' travel tastes are shifting in the opposite direction. Destination reunions are in. Solo getaways are out.

"The tide of mega-gatherings among African American families is high and rising," said Stephen Criswell, a University of South Carolina professor who has researched the sociology of African American get-togethers. "The more threats that are posed to families by dislocation and other social issues, the stronger the effort to preserve certain rituals like reunions." The gatherings have also evolved from small folksy get-togethers to full scale, carefully orchestrated celebrations.

And the pageantry of African American reunions is flourishing, too, according to Edith Wagner, editor of Reunions Magazine. "The men often sport tuxedos. The woman get dolled up in sorority dresses. And everybody is decked out in fabulous hats. Now I call that an event."

African American Tradition

As part of an Oklahoma-based mini-African American dynasty that includes five brothers, four sisters and dozens of uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews, I am more than familiar with the reunions ritual. Still, I wondered why African Americans will drive halfway across the country to commune with second and third cousins once removed when folks from other cultures want to bolt out the back door when their relatives pull up in the driveway.

What makes African Americans place reunions at the exalted level of weddings and funerals? And how does someone with little experience successfully execute a multi-generational gathering of a clan with all of the branches, factions and issues that most families have?

For answers, I took a close-up look at one family's gathering: the Fishers, a clan with a strong Georgia contingent whose 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, S.C. Both took up cotton and potato farming and, between them, fathered 16 children. In the late 1940s and '50s, the grandchildren began to migrate to New Jersey and other parts north in search of better jobs. The two brothers died in the 1950s. Their descendants have been meeting every two years since the late 1990s.

Now the Fishers were rolling in, steering everything from Chevys to Land Rovers into the driveway of the Atlanta Hilton. The organizing committee expected between 150 and 200 family members to attend, including several dozen from around Atlanta. The 40-person-strong South Carolina contingent had chartered a bus for the trip. Others had flown in from Washington, Denver and other parts. At the registration desk, they traded hugs and picked up their green-and-gold reunion T-shirts (blue for organizers) and the program for the three-day event.

The kickoff was low-key -- a reception in the Hilton ballroom, followed by a buffet supper of fried chicken, potato salad and baked beans served on paper plates -- but emotions rolled through the room like a strong breeze on a summer morning. Sammy Fisher, 68, and his cousin Frank Cauthen, also in his sixties, embraced until their eyes welled up. Ellen Fisher and Sue Hopkins, cousins with the same infectious guffaw, fell into each other's arms and did a jig. And no wonder: Many attendees hadn't seen one another since the 2003 reunion in Charlotte. "It's like two years of feelings just come tumbling out," Etta explained.

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