Suzanne Vargus Holloman attended her first family reunion in 1980, when she was in her mid-20s. She didn’t play hide-and-seek with her cousins in the grassy fields and old growth forests of Pennsylvania where she grew up, or get a special toy for winning a wheelbarrow race. But she did see an uplifting change in the family.
“At our first family reunion I saw the impact it had on the young men,” Holloman, co-director of the Family Reunion Institute, recalls. She says that the men were affirmed by the extended family in ways they hadn’t been before. Feelings that they weren’t living up to the family’s expectations or didn’t have the support they needed were replaced with assurance and love. “The way they carried themselves and the self-confidence they had when they left that reunion — you could see it.”
After that experience, Holloman and her mother, Dr. Ione Vargus, had questions. Namely, “is this phenomenon just my family reunion or are all family reunions like this?” That question inspired Dr. Vargus, dean emerita of the Temple University School of Social Work, to dedicate herself to researching African American family reunions. She interviewed families from the eastern, northern and southern parts of the United States, diving in to discover the reasons families hold reunions and the benefits reunions have for individuals. What she found is that the experience that she and her daughter, Holloman, had at their reunion was not unique in the slightest. Many families around the country were using reunions for goal-specific reasons, like building up future generations and building a strong foundation of extended support.
So, in 1990, Dr. Vargus founded the Family Reunion Institute, an organization that boasts being the only one of its kind in America to focus exclusively on strengthening extended families. And while she maintains that any type of family gathering — whether it’s Sunday dinner or a barbecue — is important for passing down values, building strong bonds and passing along history, family reunions have a distinction: “Reunions are mission-centric,” she says. “It’s more than a picnic.”
Across the country, families of all backgrounds and in all regions — from the East Coast to the Pacific Northwest — hold annual reunions. More often than not, there are special T-shirts that are made and planning committees that determine the location and date of the event. Some reunions last a day, some last a weekend and some last longer. Family recipes of salads that mysteriously contain no veggies are happily (or sometimes, warily) consumed and games are played. Stories old and new are told, and family elders dote on youngsters. And while many family reunions hold space for family history to be passed down and retold, many don’t know the history of family reunions themselves.
Family reunions started after the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, Holloman says. “While people were enslaved it was very hard to keep family connections. The very system of slavery was meant to break up families. After emancipation, African American families finally gathered,” she says. After generations of being torn apart, Black families began to put themselves back together. William Still, a well-known abolitionist and author of “The Underground Railroad,” founded the Still Family Reunion to bring descendants of the family back together, and to pass down stories of horrors survived and freedom found. “He called them to gather on a regular basis,” Holloman says. Today, the Still Family Reunion is more than 150 years old and hosts more than 500 participants. “What has happened in general with reunions is that they’ve become a part of our cultural heritage,” Holloman says. “They contribute to the survival and progress of families with very specific goals.”
One of those goals is to impart values, which families identify and weave into the reunion’s activities. Some families place an emphasis on education, collecting donations to create scholarships that assist the kids going to college in the family. Other families have nonprofits and create chapters to raise money for charitable causes that are important to the family. Some families that Holloman and Dr. Vargus have worked with build venture capital funds to gift to family members who want to start businesses. There are even organized workshops around various topics such as retirement saving, building wealth, charitable giving and business that are held at some family reunions.
“We’ve seen reunions take shape as highly organized events that impart values and love through growth,” Holloman says. “They are very specifically planned to help the family progress and to empower the family. And sure, they are still lots of fun, too.”
Dr. Vargus and Holloman both say that family reunions in general are something that every family can benefit from. “It’s an opportunity of families of all backgrounds and all definitions to come together and have that time of imparting love and concern and supporting each other,” Dr. Vargus says. And this summer, as families reunite for the first time — in some cases — since 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, having time to spend together, to tell stories, to hug and to have intergenerational interaction will bring a much more literal meaning to “reunion” than it has in generations.
Dr. Vargus and Holloman both anticipate seeing more and larger family reunions this year and next year. “We have gotten back to basics and the importance of family,” Holloman says. “And while technology has helped us stay connected, there’s nothing like the face-to-face contact.” It, just like those family stories and lessons from our elders passed down, helps us to feel affirmed and for us to know better who we are.
This story appears in the June issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.