CHICAGO — BBQ and family reunions are to summer as fruitcake and carols are to Christmas.
The Blackwell family reunion celebrated its 112th event last weekend. Determined not to let the tradition go by the wayside due to COVID-19, Chatham resident and Chicago host Theresa Wearring held the first virtual reunion, where relatives reveled in seeing one another, catching up, breaking bread and playing games. Family members from five states made an appearance.
For 111 years, they’d celebrated with the smell of various dishes wafting over banquet halls or parks (desserts like banana strawberry pudding and blackberry dumplings), the cacophony of voices of family members being heard over music playing in the background. Young cousins running around tables playing with cousins they only get to see once a year. Nieces and nephews going around getting reacquainted with their aunts and uncles from around the country.
The Blackwell family rotates locations where different chapters exist: Georgia, Maryland, California, Ohio and Chicago/Detroit. Then coronavirus came on the scene, and the gathering that started in 1908 was threatened. Some Blackwells were thinking “uh-oh.” But Wearring, president of the Chicago/Detroit chapter, was not having it.
“That’s the reason I said we were not not going to have a family reunion,” Wearring said. “So, we had to find a way of getting it done. I started doing research and found someone had done a virtual family reunion. I said, OK, let the games begin. This is the first time we did this, but we told the next state in line, which is California, ‘You better take notes, because we don’t know what it will be like next year.’”
Wearring hosted the first virtual Blackwell family reunion last weekend with an assist from her children, Daniel and Dana. A big-screen television was mounted on the living room wall, and computers, iPads and phones were synced up to talk to and see the various relatives from around the nation. According to Wearring, a pastor at Riverdale Baptist Church, reunions that she’s hosted in Chicago since 2000 brings out at least 100 relatives for the festivities. And the virtual one brought about the same. The meet-and-greet event Friday had people showing off pictures of their children and new grandchildren, reminiscing about previous reunions, and trying to connect the dots about family lore that folks had heard about in reunions past. Whereas at in-person reunions, one might have to talk louder to be heard, this virtual reunion had relatives raising their hands to make sure others weren’t talking over them.
“One hundred twelve years and going,” said Dr. Arthur Johnson, vice president of the Chicago/Detroit chapter who lives in California. “Virtual wasn’t ideal for us, but we’re here, and we’re blessed — thank God we’re all here. There’s nothing like family. Meeting family and reconnecting is so important to me. You may not have anything else, but you will always have family.”
The weekend fun included trivia and other games, a virtual dance party with a DJ, and a church service followed by the annual banquet (where relatives ate their meals at the same time on Zoom). Relatives shared stories about their lineage, coming of age during reunions and how the reunion came about. Wearring mentioned that nonrefrigerated greens made everyone sick in 1972 in Detroit (that’s why reunions had been catered ever since).
Wearring showed pictures and shared stories of her late aunt who styled the hair of Motown stars, while other relatives spoke of their ancestors talking about meeting Harriet Tubman on the Underground Railroad. And then there was Hubron Blackwell, remembered as being the first Black person in Baltimore and the second In Maryland to become an Army Air Corps pilot in World War II. (He was a Tuskegee airman who joined the Corps in 1941.) Currently, Danyell Smith, of Maryland, is the national co-chair of the Black Women for Biden organization, and her son Bryan Carroll recently published a children’s book. (Wearring is also a published author.)
“These are the stories that we need you to start writing down,” said Vivian Baker, a descendant of Jefferson Blackwell, who lives in Bradenton, Florida. “That’s the goal to do one day: get the family tree together, so we can all have it and stop guessing and to write the story. If not this year, we need to make a plan to make it happen by next year. That’s something that we cherish, learning about our parents and our great-grandparents, and it would be great on the Blackwell side if we could start writing these stories — especially in light of current day’s history. We see what’s going on with Black Lives Matter. Our people was part of all of those civil rights movements, and we’ve made a lot of history.”
Baker spent time researching Blackwell history in Utah in 2019. She traced the family name back to slavery, but like many other Black families, she’s gotten stuck at locating Blackwell roots in Africa. As she said, it’s where most African Americans get stuck in tracing their genealogy. But she’s not stopping. She wants to get the younger generations involved to keep digging.
The Blackwell family reunion history thus far: In 1908, knowing that members of their families were scattered around Georgia, the Rev. Wyatt (aka Wyte/Wyett) Blackwell, a former slave, and Rena Blackwell, his sister-in-law, suggested that family members hold an annual gathering to bring the Blackwells together. The first such meeting was in Elbert County, Georgia, near Maple Springs Church. Then, Wearring said, the reunions moved out of the county to Atlanta. In 1930, the Blackwell family brought the reunion to Cleveland; in 1949, it landed in Detroit, then expanded to Baltimore and to California in 1991. Wearring brought it to Chicago in 2000. The majority of the Blackwells referenced lineage from Wyatt, others Jefferson, and younger reunion members referred to Frank and Amanda Blackwell.
“Always keep the family together. That was his (Wyatt’s) motto,” Wearring said. “I do know that motto has permeated our family. There’s a confidence that comes with knowing who you are, knowing your family.”
That motto can be seen in the myriad T-shirts that Wearring has collected over the years. The tie-dye T-shirt for 2020 was sent out to members to wear during the festivities to coincide with the ‘70s throwback theme. Estell Risby, 86, of Cleveland, remembers attending reunions when she was “knee-high to a duck.” As daughter of Frank and Amanda Blackwell, Estell was baptized in the church where Wyatt was a founder, Maple Springs Church. The family cemetery sits adjacent to the church. Estell’s son Keith Langford, 51, has been attending Blackwell reunions since he was born. According to Patricia Wagner, it wasn’t until 1980 that the annual Blackwell event was brought into hotels. Before that, relatives would stay in relatives’ homes.
“We used to sleep on floors, sleep in shifts. It was a big slumber party in a whole bunch of the places,” said California chapter President Gracelia Blackwell Smith.
“That’s the way it worked. … My mother and her cousins being up all night long cooking for days,” Wagner said.
Smith started attending Blackwell reunions when she was 12 years old in 1962 — traveling by car cross-country to see family. They didn’t go every year, but when she married her husband in 1981 and he was fascinated with the Blackwell tradition, Smith started going regularly, and it became their family vacation, she said.
Langford and Baker remember being sent to Elberton, Georgia, to stay with Frank and Amanda Blackwell for the summers when they were children. Both recall being shocked to see their elders kill a live chicken for dinner. Family members knocked pecans from trees for pecan pies that their grandmother would make, and she made coconut cake that would be taken to Sunday services. Wearring remembered learning how to drive on the 112 acres of land there. Langford said family members are working with cousins to figure out what to do with the Blackwell land in Elberton.
With five reunions under her belt, Wearring said she now knows first, second, third, fourth and fifth cousins, and the benefits of having such a big family. (One example: Wearring’s daughter fractured her shoulder while on vacation in Puerto Rico. Wearring mentioned the incident to a relative and found a cousin in the area who helped her daughter.) While she and other chapter presidents had to figure out how to hold a reunion via Zoom in different time zones, she and others were happy with how 2020 1/4 u2032s reunion turned out.
“Just the mere fact that we were waving at each other on the screen was great,” she said.
From Elberton to Chicago, the Blackwell reunion, always held on the first full weekend of August, has come a long way since potluck meals in parks. The family even has its own song, “Blackwells Forever,” set to the melody of the Black anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Written by Irvin Blackwell, the last verse is:
We have come, mindful of he who has brought us together.
Let it dwell, for we are Blackwells who will live forever!
Striving the best we can, together hand in hand
God Bless this house, God Bless this family!
“When I talk to folks, I find out we’re the only ones who do it (a reunion) every year,” said Donna Blackwell, niece to Irvin and a former Maryland chapter president. “Usually people skip a year, do it every other year or every three years or something like that. I’ve never known anybody to do it consistently every year.”
Next up on the Blackwell research agenda: locating documentation of Wyatt Blackwell having a twin who was sold during slavery and whom Wyatt never saw again. It’s a story shared among the generations, but the facts have yet to be found.
“The more the merrier because a lot of us don’t know how we’re related right now. The thing about the Blackwells is that there were so many of them back in the day,” Smith said.
“When we say that we’re 112 years young, and when you start telling some of the stories about how we persevered over the years — everyone gets excited because they can’t believe it,” said Baker, who started attending reunions when she was an adult in 1996. “We have to do a better job writing it down, so that our kids can continue to be excited about knowing these things. Because when you know whose you are, it makes a difference.”
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