A Festive Celebration Of Family

Posted: July 29, 1990

Actress Esther Rolle sat on the steps of Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park, resplendent in red on a cloudy gray day.

She was waiting for the start of the fifth annual Black Family Reunion. She was trying to converse with a friend. But people kept interrupting, walking right up as if she were a neighbor, stopping to chat as if she were their friend.

Rolle didn't mind. In fact, she said, she reveled in it.

"It's this kind of togetherness that makes it so invigorating, so well

worthwhile," she said yesterday. "It's something I had in my childhood. Back then, all the grown folks was mamas and papas, and all the children was everybody's children."

Rolle was one of several celebrities and lots of just plain folk who braved gray skies and intermittent showers to take part in the reunion, sponsored by the National Council of Negro Women.

Police estimated the crowd at 10,000; festival organizers placed the figure at about 50,000.

Begun in Washington in 1986 as a one-day celebration of the black family, the reunion has since expanded to cover six cities in three months, beginning this year in Philadelphia and ending in Atlanta in October.

The reunion, which continues today, is more festival than family get- together: Scores of vendors are selling ethnic food; clothing and crafts are surrounded by brightly colored tents where visitors can get information on health care or education, talk to local elected officials, see a makeup demonstration or just talk about men and women.

But the festival-like atmosphere is a means, not an end, said Dorothy Height, president of the council and motivating force behind the celebration.

"The reunion is the method," she said in an interview before yesterday's opening ceremony, which featured Rolle, Mayor Goode and singers Melba Moore and James Ingram, among others. "But we have a specific message to get through."

That message: The black family is alive and well and living in America, despite drugs, high dropout rates and other social ills.

"We are often described as a problem-people, but really we are a people with problems," she said. "We also have this historic strength and traditional values."

An emphasis on education, strong family and community ties and respect for others were the ruling values in black communities during the years when,

because of segregation, blacks shared the same neighborhoods regardless of economic status, Height said.

As segregation fell, middle-class blacks moved out of the old neighborhoods, removing role models for children and creating a vacuum that was filled with skewed values, Height said.

"We may not be able to go all the way back," she said. "But if we can bring people out of that to a place where they can get in touch with something bigger, we'll have accomplished something."

Andrew Ruffin of North Philadelphia said the reunion celebration had performed an important task - making people aware of the good things happening in the black community.

"This has been long overdue," he said as he listened to a performance by the Black Family Reunion Mass Choir. "We need to stress the family. The children are our future."

As Ruffin spoke, Tarik Wallace clung to his leg and looked toward the stage. Wallace, 8, is the son of Ruffin's friend Guy Wallace of South Jersey.

"I wanted to expose my son to as much culture as possible," the elder Wallace said. "And it's good to be around when people are reacting to one another in a positive way."

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