Roots Reunions

By Diane Haddad Premium

Genealogists spend a lot of time thinking about dead people. Come on, admit it: When you’re poking around in 1800s census records and poring over dusty turn-of-the-century diaries to break through a mile-high brick wall, it’s easy to overlook the living, breathing members of your family tree.

So what’s the antidote to your genealogy-induced dead-relative syndrome? Planning a “roots reunion.” More than a traditional “lets-get-together-and-grill-out-and-play-softball” gathering, a roots reunion incorporates activities, decorations and roods that focus on your family’s unique history. It lets you introduce your living relatives to the fascinating people behind the names on your pedigree chart.

Don’t worry: Any time you spend planning this type of get-together will pay off in genealogical dividends. Kin will seek out you, the family historian, to share genealogical information with. You’ll get names to match the faces in your unidentified photo pile. New stories will surface, providing research leads and fleshing out ancestors’ personalities. But here’s the best prize of all: A roots reunion improves the chances that your family’s story will live on, even when you’re an ancestor.

Going Back to Basics

First, let’s briefly review Reunions 101. You should start planning at least 18 months in advance. Form a committee, and assign relatives to take charge of finances, location, communication, food, decorations and activities. Your budget factors into every decision, so plan it carefully and decide how you’ll fund the event — typically, each family pitches in a certain dollar amount per person, plus extra for tours or special activities.

Among your first decisions will be a date and place. One method is to have families select from a list of options, and go with what’s convenient for most. Try to choose a site that’s significant to your family history. If you’re blessed budget-wise, travel overseas to your ancestral homeland. If you’re planning on a shoestring, you still can pick a special place How about the church where your grandparents married, or a park near a historic site? (See the June 2003 Family Tree Magazine for money-saving reunion advice.)

Even if you end up in a generic hotel ball-room, create roots atmosphere by putting up travel posters and photos of your family’s old stomping grounds (look on tourism Web sites). Edith Wagner, editor of Reunions Magazine, suggests making like the Knapp family of Beetown, Wis.: At their reunion, a cousin showed a slide presentation about his trip to the family homeland of Werlau, Germany.

Setting the Stage

Once you’ve decided the planning particulars, you’re ready to move on to the genealogy particulars. That includes instilling enthusiasm among the invitees. Start a newsletter or Web site to report reunion updates and communicate your roots focus. Make it fun by publishing old “mystery” photos or family trivia. Promise to reveal the answers at the reunion, or offer prizes for the first correct answer. Consider including a family history questionnaire to collect stories. For help crafting one, visit <>.

Also ask family members to send copies of photos, letters and other memorabilia for a reunion display. “The Busse Family Reunion, cited in the Guinness Book of World Records as the country’s largest reunion, had a whole exhibition hall at the Lake County [Ill.] Fairgrounds to display family history and artifacts, including a collection of wedding dresses,” Wagner says. But there’s no need to rent a hall — even a dozen objects and photos arranged on a corner table will inspire memories and discussions about who has Great-grandpa Ed’s chin.

Use copies of original documents when possible, and keep your display in an out-of-the-way spot — otherwise you’ll be known as the mean relative who shot dirty looks at anyone approaching the photo table with a soda. Frame photos or put them in plastic page protectors with names and dates on label stickers. If you don’t know who’s pictured, write that on the label. Provide pens and paper in case a cousin can supply details. Other ideas for setting the roots mood:

Highlight an ancestor’s experience — such as immigrating to America or following the California Gold Rush — with a history display. Search the Internet for photos and information, visit museums for brochures and create a fact sheet about your ancestor’s experience. 

Post a giant family tree chart. Print one from your genealogy software, or draw your pedigree on taped-together sheets of paper (or butcher paper). Melanie Fagan of Crestwood, Ill., color-codes her tree’s branches with nametags to show at a glance where everyone fits. “The tree is tacked to a long table or wall, with a pen for people to make additions,” Fagan says. “Even people who don’t have anything to add love to look at it.”

Serve ethnic foods and family favorites for dinner. Most caterers will use your recipes, or you can hold a potluck and assign relatives to bring their famous dishes.

Putting Family History into Action

Structured activities are great — even necessary — for getting relatives reacquainted when they’ve been out of touch for years. Roots reunion activities have another objective: to foster the exchange of family history information. Plan pastimes that appeal to a range of ages, and encourage different generations to interact. But don’t cram the schedule: Pick a few amusements, and leave downtime between them.

For each activity, find a way to record the memories that surface. Recruit responsible volunteers to take notes, hold a video camera or use a tape recorder. The end product will be a piece of family history, a source of research leads and perhaps a reunion souvenir. We recommend the following activities:

Show-and-tell session: Ask everyone to bring an heirloom, photo or other memorabilia and share a story about it.

Oral history interviews: They can be as simple as pairing up people with questionnaires, clipboards and pens. Or for a more “official” result, appoint a few relatives to conduct lengthier sessions.

Family-recipe bake-off: Publish recipes and a bake-off announcement in your reunion newsletter. Let Grandma judge whose apple pie tastes most like her own.

Story time: Ask older relatives to tell family stories. Prepare prompts, such as “What about the time Grandpa had his tonsils out?” to encourage them if needed.

Family trivia: Gather entertaining facts about ancestors, and hold a Trivial Pursuit-or spelling bee-style quiz. Or you can turn the game into an icebreaker: Give each person a printed list of questions to answer (within a 5- or 10-minute period) by asking other relatives. Small framed photos make good prizes.

Field trip: Many cities have history-focused tour companies that can lead your expedition; these businesses may even arrange private outings for large groups. If your family’s more adventurous (or independent), print maps for self-guided tours. The d’Alvigny family, who descend from Confederate surgeon Noel d’Alvigny, toured the Civil War cyclorama painting in Atlanta’s Grant Park, as well as the cemetery where Dr. d’Alvigny is buried.

Genealogy workshop or round table: Hold a get-started class, ask family historians to bring their research and compare notes, or treat the group with a research trip to the library or courthouse.

Nostalgic games: Set up marbles, checkers, hopscotch, horseshoes, baseball or other games your ancestors played.

Candid camera: Place disposable cameras on tables throughout the room. Kids love them, and you’re guaranteed to have plenty of reunion photos.

Don’t depend on these activities to get answers to specific genealogical questions, though — in the hustle and bustle, relatives might get distracted and forget details. Instead, schedule off-site time to interview Great-aunt Ethel or convene with family historians.

Taking it With You

Don’t let the roots reminiscing stop when the relatives leave. Let them take home souvenirs that enhance family unity and share the memories you’ve gathered. Someone (perhaps a designated “souvenir chairperson”) can make or purchase mementos ahead of time, and then pass them out at the gathering. Or everyone can contribute to a project during the reunion, and you can mail copies of the finished product afterward. To ease distribution, have anyone who wants a copy self-address an appropriate-sized envelope and put postage money inside. Use one of these suggestions:

Pedigree charts and family directories: They’re easy to put together, and you can spice them up with the report options in your genealogy software. Use the reunion newsletter to let relatives update contact information or opt out of being listed.

Family history book or CD-ROM: Mary Briggs of Tigard, Ore., sent an information-gathering letter before her family rendezvous: “I explained that I was going to put together a genealogy book that would be available at the reunion. I also asked for copies of documents, newspaper clippings, stories or old pictures.” Briggs assembled these contributions with her research materials — a total of 500 pages — and had them copied and put in three-ring binders. She sold the books at cost, about $40.

Video-or audiotape of reunion footage: Aside from allowing your cousins to relive the reunion fun, this option lets everyone have a “real-time” record of the family history discoveries made during the reunion — it’s ideal for preserving and sharing interviews or storytelling sessions.

Reunion portrait: Don’t pass up the opportunity to shoot a group photo while you’re all in one place. Hire a professional if your budget allows, or follow the tips at <>.

Family recipe book: Along with recipes (solicited in the newsletter), include photos of family bakers and stories about their goodies.

“Brag book”-sized photo album or CD-ROM of family photos: Incorporate pics from those disposable cameras you placed around the room, as well as copies of ancestral photos shared during the festivities. You also might include a photo (or miniature copy) of the family tree chart you displayed.

Scrapbook: Have each family create a page using provided papers, pens and Polaroids (or employ that handy newsletter to ask people to bring photos). Later, scan or color-copy the pages and mail them out.

Organizing a roots reunion might seem more complicated than planning a run-of-the-mill get-together, but it’s really not, Wagner says, because the family history theme gives you a focus and narrows the number of location and activity choices. And it’s a theme everyone can get excited about. “Your family history is the one thing everyone at the reunion has in common,” Wagner says. “Celebrate it!”

From the June 2004 Family Tree Magazine