Aah, summer. Ninety plus days of sun and relaxation are upon us. For many African-Americans, the season is also the time for gathering with relatives at a family reunion. This time honored practice can be traced back as far as the years following Emancipation in the 1800s. In an article published by the American Society on Aging, writer Renee McCoy described the tradition this way, “Family reunions surfaced as vehicles through which cohesiveness could be restored and culture revitalized. They emerged as rituals capable of strengthening and stabilizing the African-American family, and as tools for building strong and viable foundations for future generations. African-American elders became indispensible resources for their wisdom and guidance, and were, in turn, recognized and given strength, empowered, and authenticated.”
For many African-Americans curious to uncover their own ancestral past, the family reunion can prove to be more than a fun weekend filled with cookouts, talent shows and church services. The tradition can also be a veritable treasure chest of rare genealogical gems.
Otis Tyler, a member of the Indiana African-American Genealogical Group (IAAGG), began his research following a presentation made by his daughter at a family reunion in the early 1980s. In 1984, the Tyler reunion, usually held in Kansas, came to Indiana for the first time.
“My daughter looked up some history of where we came from and from that I started getting involved and looking up the history. I traced us back to the 1830s in North Carolina and the 1840s in Indiana,” he said.
Tyler learned his family’s last name was adopted by his great great grandfather in an unconventional way. “My great great grandfather didn’t like his slave name so he changed his name to his wife’s last name which was Tyler—so our name is not a slave name,” he said. Tyler’s great great grandfather, Primus Shepherd, was born a slave on the Theophilus Edwards plantation in North Carolina in 1796. In 1827, he married a free mulatto woman, Elizabeth “Betsy” Tyler. The couple had 12 children, some of whom migrated to Parke County, Ind. In 1851, Shepherd was sold by his owners to a Quaker man for $100. Upon relocating to Indiana, the Quaker relinquished his ownership to Shepherd’s wife. By 1860, according to census records, all of the Tylers had migrated to Indiana.
Otis Tyler, who has been involved with IAAGG for about six years, chronicled his family’s story in an article published in an IAAGG newsletter. “I’m a senior citizen, so history is important to me,” he said, remarking he believes the younger generation is not as interested.
“Learn your roots, if you don’t know where you came from – you really don’t know where you’re going.”
Nichelle Hayes, who has been involved with IAAGG since 2001, said her interest in genealogy was nurtured through decades of attending family reunions with her mother’s side of the family. “One branch of my mother’s family, the Curtis’, were from St. Mary Parish in Louisiana. We have been having family reunions every two years for as far back as 1977, so I had been to a number of those and I just kind of knew that history and it had been repeated frequently —the information was readily available.”
Due to this foundation, as a child she was able to easily map out four generations of maternal branches for a family tree class project. Hayes shared that cracking the code to her paternal side was not as easy.
“With my dad, I ran into some obstacles because his mother died when he was young and his father died when he was in high school – he didn’t really speak of them and so I didn’t have that information but now at this point on both branches I can go back about 6 generations,” she said.
A lot of what she found she describes as interesting and complicated. Hayes has not yet located the final resting place of her father’s mother but was able to clear up another familial mystery.
“A lot of history is lost due to people changing their last names … it makes it hard to follow them back,” she said. “One of my great grandparents, Hubert Williams named his daughter after him, Hubert. When he was born his last name was Hayes and then at some point as an adult he changed it to Williams… it took about seven to eight years to track all that down and figure out why it happened. That was my biggest accomplishment.”
Hayes urges anyone planning to attend a family reunion this year to take advantage of the rich history available to them. “What I would say to anyone who is going to a family reunion this year is to just sit down and really talk to people – maybe even record them with your phone, obviously with their permission. Let them talk about their parents and their great-great grandparents as far back as they can go.” She also suggests working with family reunion coordinators to record the names and ages of each guest in attendance as well as bringing a fill-in-the-blank pedigree chart and physical copies of any family photographs you would like to share.
“Family reunions are invaluable,” said Hayes. “You’re important as an individual but you are also a part of this huge puzzle. Family reunions are a way to bring people together despite the years and miles that may have separated them, it gives you a bedrock to go back to.”
For more information on IAAGG, visit Iaagg.org.