Tuesday, August 13, 2002

Black Family Reunion hopes to help heal

Organizers say protests misunderstand mission

By Kevin Aldridge kaldridge@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        At a time when racial tensions and a boycott hang over Cincinnati, organizers of the Midwest Regional Black Family Reunion Celebration want the event to tackle some of the city's social issues.

        The three-day celebration, which starts Friday at Sawyer Point, could help to fix a city damaged by riots and an economic boycott, said event coordinator Cassandra Robinson.

  • When: Friday-Sunday
  • Where: Sawyer Point
  • Friday Events:
  Opening Ceremony and Heritage Breakfast, 8 a.m. at the Vernon Manor Hotel; keynote speaker is Gwendolyn Grant
  Town Hall Meeting, 6 p.m. at Swifton Commons in Bond Hill; Topic is “Raising Today's Child: What Does It Take?”
  • Saturday Events:
  Black Family Reunion Parade, 10 a.m. at the Cincinnati Museum Center (Union Terminal)
  Pavilions and booths open from noon to 6 p.m.
  Jammin' on the Cove, 2-7 p.m. at Yeatman's Cove on Sawyer Point
  R&B Concert, 5-9 p.m. at Yeatman's Cove
  • Sunday Events:
  Pavilions and booths open from noon to 6 p.m.
  Jammin' on the Cove, 2-7 p.m. at Yeatman's Cove
  Gospel concert 5-9 p.m. at Yeatman's Cove.
  • Info: www.midwestbfrc.com or call 531-4877.
        And while it may be called “The Black Family Reunion,” Ms. Robinson said, she hopes that a lot more white families will take an interest because the annual festival offers a deeper look into Afrocentric thinking and African-American lifestyles.

        “So often we look for answers to questions about race relations, closing racial divides and racial healing, and tend to overlook what we already have in place with the Black Family Reunion,” Ms. Robinson said. “We have always had a racially mixed crowd, but the ratio of blacks to whites has been broad. If we can close the gap that may promote more positive dialogue.”

        The Black Family Reunion Celebration has become one of the nation's largest family movements since its inception in 1986.

        The Black Family Reunion is usually held at regional gatherings nationwide, but for the past couple of years it has been scheduled only for Cincinnati and Washington.

        A Midwestern celebration has been in Cincinnati for 14 years.

        The reunion typically attracts thousands, mainly from four states (Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Kentucky) and pumps $16 million into the local economy.

        The event focuses on eight major issues : education, spirituality, family values, young adults, children, job opportunities, health and sports/fitness.

        This year's reunion, themed “It takes a Cyber Village to Raise Today's Child,” will feature educational booths, motivational speakers, ecumenical services, music, food, parades and a town hall meeting.

        Organizers say they do not expect the boycott to hurt attendance even though protesters will most likely have a presence at the event. Ms. Robinson said she believes the protests will have the opposite effect of what boycotters intend.

        “I think the boycott may drive more people to come out because people want to say, "I'll do what I want to do,”' Ms. Robinson said.

        The 13-month-old boycott of the city, launched by three groups of black activists to protest police and economic injustices, has deterred African-American conventions from holding events here and prompted entertainers to cancel shows.

        Boycotters have said they don't have a problem with the Black Family Reunion or its purpose, but they don't like its location on downtown's riverfront.

        A few boycott leaders have suggested in recent weeks that organizers could have relocated it, preferably in a predominately African-American neighborhood.

        But Ms. Robinson said such a move would be impossible at this late stage, and she said relocating would dramatically affect its funding.

        “Our funding from the city is in-kind,” she said.

        “They pay the bill for us to be at Sawyer Point. If we had to clean up, pay rent and provide police, I honestly don't think we could have the event.”

        Nathaniel Livingston Jr., a member of the boycott group Coalition for a Just Cincinnati, said he has expressed his disappointment with local organizers and wrote a letter to founder and president emeritus Dorothy I. Height voicing his objections to holding the event downtown.

        He said the reunion could still have the same effect if it were held in Woodlawn or Lincoln Heights.

        “Everybody thinks that somehow or another that their event is so different or so unique that it deserves a pass and that they should be able to violate the boycott without repercussions,” Mr. Livingston said, noting there would likely be demonstrations.

        “We may agree with their message, but it is still a violation of the boycott,” he said.

        Gerald Glasbie, promotions coordinator for the reunion, said there wouldn't be a boycott booth at the gathering, but protesters will be allowed to make their case.

        “The event is free and open to the public so I'm sure they will have a chance to share their thoughts with those who attend,” Mr. Glasbie said. “That's what families do - they listen to each other's points of view even when they don't agree.”

        In addition to sending out a message that the Black Family Reunion Celebration is not for African-Americans only, organizers want to re-emphasize that the weekend is about more than raffles and entertainment.

        “When I first heard someone say that we (African-Americans) should not be downtown having a good time, my immediate reaction was that the reunion was not intended to be simply a good-time event,” Mr. Glasbie said.

        “It's a time where we look deep into issues affecting our families and try to come up with solutions to some of those challenging situations.”

        Ms. Height and the National Council for Negro Women started the national event 16 years ago to dispute reports of the demise of the black family.

        Ms. Robinson said in recent years organizers have increased promotion of its entertainment, but are always careful not to lose focus on the reunion's original mission.

        “People will always want to know who the entertainers will be, that's normal,” Mr. Glasbie said. “But when that's all people start talking about then your event becomes more of a party than anything else. It is ultimately up to us to make sure that this remains the type of event that we want it to be.”

        Joan Carroll-Flowers, of Forest Park, said the Black Family Reunion symbolizes a time for families to reunite and share their histories.

        In fact, she said it was the reunion celebration that inspired her to seek out her family heritage.

        The local business owner, who has attended all but last year's reunion, discovered that her great-, great-uncle, Edward Coleman, was one of Cincinnati's first African-American entrepreneurs.

        He owned a bowling alley, hotel and funeral home, she said.

        “The reunion really got be searching for my roots,” Mrs. Carroll-Flowers said.

        “What I love about it is that it promotes that spirit of family. And it is that spirit of family that holds this city together.”


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