Black Families Flock to Annual Reunion

Samantha Firestone swings her friend's child, 18-month-old Laylah Newman, at the 22nd annual Black Family Reunion on the Mall.
Samantha Firestone swings her friend's child, 18-month-old Laylah Newman, at the 22nd annual Black Family Reunion on the Mall. (Photos By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 9, 2007

For 22 years, the Black Family Reunion has brought generations of African Americans together on the Mall to celebrate their heritage, hear sweet music, receive helpful information and share in some good old-fashioned home cooking -- a weekend of "edu-tainment," in the words of one organizer.

But lest anyone forget the main reason for the annual event, the grande dame of the National Council of Negro Women, which founded it in 1986, reminded everyone yesterday.

"All of us were sick and tired of hearing about what was wrong with the black family," said Dorothy I. Height, the council's 95-year-old chairwoman and president emeritus. "We wanted to show everyone what was right about our values."

The two-day event draws thousands of participants every September.

Yesterday, there were free shoulder and neck massages, a rap-a-thon for teens and young adults and a somber discussion on what Washingtonians can do to help efforts to rebuild Gulf Coast communities in Louisiana and Mississippi that were devastated two years ago by Hurricane Katrina.

Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project in Washington, informed those in attendance about the class-action lawsuit her organization filed on behalf of 5,200 poor African American families prohibited from returning to public housing in New Orleans. The case goes to trial in November.

"Let us be among those who say to the Gulf Coast families, 'You are not forgotten, and we will be your voice,' " said Brenda Girton-Mitchell, an executive with the National Councils of Churches of Christ in the USA.

In a pavilion devoted to health, there were the usual blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol screenings. There was also a bone marrow typing drive in honor of former District first lady Effi Barry, who died Thursday at age 63 from acute myeloid leukemia.

The scorching late-summer sun did little to discourage attendance. Hand-held paper fans fluttered everywhere in the 90-degree heat.

But Height looked cool and regal in one of her signature broad-brimmed hats, this one in lilac blue straw to coordinate with her cloth corsage and multicolor blouse.

Though in a wheelchair and reed-thin, Height spoke with a strong voice as she recalled the details of how she became involved in the National Council of Negro Women in 1937.

It all began when, as a 24-year-old New York Welfare Department caseworker, she was called upon to escort first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to a meeting of the national council in Harlem.

The meeting was presided over by council founder and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune. A year later, Height joined the council and began her career as a civil rights activist.

Today, Height is a legend in her own right, and she appeared at the Black Family Reunion surrounded by five generations of her family and the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Bethune. Audience members snapped cellphone pictures and gave Height a standing ovation as she was wheeled in and out of the tent.

Sheree Leonard of Upper Marlboro was overcome by emotion as she was called upon to address Height.

As a ninth-grade counselor at Central High School in Capitol Heights, Leonard is responsible for inspiring 500 students, most of them black, to stay in school and aspire to college and productive futures. Height, she said, set the standard.

"At 24, she was destined to do great things, and if you can be around that, maybe some of that will come off on me," Leonard said of Height.

"She embraces what I'm trying to work with. I'm trying to bring the students I'm working with to greatness," Leonard said.

The reunion continues today from noon to 8 p.m. on the Mall, from Seventh to 14th streets NW.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company