February, 2015:  NEW YEAR INSPIRATION / by Ione Vargus and Wrise Booker

During the first months of a New Year, many writers and poets talk about resolutions. There's also quite a bit about how quickly the resolutions are broken. I'm pleased to offer a piece written by my niece, Wrise Booker, which captures my own thoughts in a very beautiful but thoughtful way.

A year stands in front of you:  fresh, expectant and alive.
It’s ready to produce things that have never been,
Eager to sponsor risks that have yet to be taken.

So, what will you do with your year?

Abandon, for the moment, your promises to exercise more, eat better and play harder.
Do those things but put thoughts of them aside for now.

Instead, focus on what will make your spirit soar and your heart pound.
What will make you know that you’re living a worthwhile life?
What will leave you confident that you stepped up, performed passionately and landed
with impact?

It’s already in you.
You just have to give it permission to live.

What seems a bit scary but exciting as well?
What beckons your soul and reminds you, “It’s time.”
What makes you want to retreat from it yet leap at its prospects?
It’s that idea that must at least be attempted if you’re to feel proud of yourself.

Come on.  Let yourself go there.

Don’t limit your year to things already done, comfortably familiar or properly vetted.  
Don’t “add water and stir” and emerge disappointed at how bland your life is.

Pull that wish from its hiding place.
Cradle it in your mind and visualize what it would create.
Imagine how you’d feel breaking your own mold.
Envision where it would take you and who’s there to meet you.
Focus on what it does for others.
You have a purpose to fulfill.

Your year stands in front of you
Expecting you to do something grand with it.

Make it so.
Wishing you Bright MOMENTS.

Wrise Booker
Consulting Group
We build leaders and transform organizations!
12762 Aclare Street ~ Cerritos, California 90703 ~ (562) 929-9849


My previous blogs have been about the many ways that we can communicate our history within the context of the reunion. The sharing of history gives family members a sense of identity, a legacy and a tradition to be shared for generations. And as we hear our family history, we come to understand who we are and where we belong. Fortunately, many local newspapers and magazines publish reunion stories, using family anecdotes or talking about members who attended, which helps to keep the history going. These articles can be shared at the reunion and highlighted in interesting ways, some of which we have already mentioned, such as scrapbooks.

Newspaper articles, particularly old ones, have helped families learn information about ancestors that they might not have known about. Thus, the Adams family has the interview with David Adams, from the June 22, 1905 issue of the Morning Republican. At that time, the oldest colored man in Findlay (and probably in Hancock County) is David Adams, the veteran barber, now retired…He is now 79 years old but when a child, he witnessed the struggles of many a poor slave in efforts to escape to Canada…and he saw the efforts made by his father and grandfather to aid the poor fugitives escape from their cruel masters.1

The Dugger children knew a great deal about their mother’s side of the family (the Kountze family), because their uncle began tracing that history during the 1930’s when he was young and wrote about it continually for 60 years. But they did not know as much about their father, Edward Dugger, beyond his military service in World War I and his later rise to Lieutenant Colonel as commander of the National Guard 372nd Infantry. He died in 1939 and there had been no family historian on his side of the family. Upon Mrs. Dugger’s death in 1995, the family found a trunk full of newspaper articles that chronicled his prowess as a high school winner at track meets in the standing high jump and the 100 yard dash. These articles, by various sports columnists, even noted how he was discriminated against and often not given first place or a medal that he was due. Because he had made an impression as an African American athlete, when he graduated from English High in Boston, MA in 1914, an article was written about him that gave dates and locations of his earlier life and schooling information about which the children did not know. Further, we learned from articles written by the African American press about the racism exhibited toward Black soldiers in World War I.

Edward Dugger, Jr. was also a track star while attending Tufts College and held world records in the hurdles during the early 1940s. He never ran track at the Olympics because they were not held in 1940 or 1944 during his prime. The sports writers really seemed to like him because of his modesty and demeanor as well as his talent and he was the subject of hundreds of sports articles. He apparently did not keep a scrapbook while he was in college and, like his father, he died relatively young. The trunks full of newspaper articles found in the attic mentioned above, also contained his information and was passed on to his children.

I have captured many newspaper articles of families and their reunions in earlier times and Reunions Magazine has provided a great service and opportunities by inviting families to send information for inclusion in the magazine.

1. Findlay Was Link in Underground Railroad before Civil War The Courier, September 8, 1982, Findlay, Ohio

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October, 2014:  KEEPING TRACK OF THE FAMILY / by Ione Vargus

Recently, I was a speaker for the Annual Family Reunion Workshop hosted by Visit Fairfax in Virginia.  My subject was “How Reunions Strengthen Families”.  The attendees wore their reunion t-shirts which were fun to see and in and of themselves often tell a piece of family history.  A group picture will be in the summer edition of Reunions Magazine, which also served as a host of the workshop.  And I  will be featuring t-shirts in a future blog. However, in this blog, I want to focus on journals and directories that several attendees brought to the workshop to share with other participants. As they shared information in their journals or directories they gave each other ideas.  All contained a great deal of information about family history that the participants enjoyed sharing with each other.

Directories encompass a great deal of information.  Often a family directory starts as a few pages in the reunion program, and eventually becomes an entity unto itself. Individual information, medical histories, photographs, personal accomplishments of family members, census information and much more may be included and will be of utmost importance to help future generations capture their family information. The Harper Family has even written a history of its directory. “Family members in Maryland produced a telephone directory, listing the names, addresses, and phone numbers of many of the family members living in and around the Maryland area.  Needless to say, the directory was a huge success!  And we began to consider how great it would be if we could produce a directory that included information about all Harper Family members, and distributed to us all as well.”The family thought carefully about what information to include.  The result is The Harper Family Directory, which has the following five, color-coded sections:Where We Live  (white pages): An alphabetical and geographical listing of names, addresses and phone numbers.Who We Are: (vanilla pages): Information on the family members includes whether the relationship to Harper is by blood or marriage, birth date, mother, father, siblings, spouse, and wedding date.  Also nickname, occupation (or grade), hobbies, favorite color, favorite season, and favorite meal.When We Celebrate (pink pages): This includes a month by month and alphabetical listing of birthdays. A month by month listing of wedding anniversaries by date only (not the year) is also in this section.Services for Sale (yellow pages): Services and items for sale by family members e.g. painters,

babysitters, bakers, accountants, etc. and information providers.Information Section (blue pages): Information, assistance and help on various subject matters e.g. real estate, day care, elder care, etc.“Putting all of the above information together in one place, and making it available to Every Harper, Everywhere, is the VISION behind the Harper Family Directory.”People who produce a directory for the family are to be congratulated for it obviously takes a great deal of effort.  But then, family reunions themselves take a great deal of work to organize. It’s clear to me that whoever does so really loves their
family, all the myths and the details.

Originally Posted March 3, 2014 as: The Best Way to Keep Track of Your Family / blog

July, 2014:  FAMILY CRESTS / by Ione Vargus

Organizing the Family Reunion Conference every year entailed a great deal of work on my part. At the same time, it helped me empathize with families who were planning their reunions since that too took a great deal of similar work.  One big difference was that I had to organize interesting workshops. “Telling the Story“(history) was one of many unique ideas that I’m sharing with you through this monthly blog.  This month I’ll focus on Family Crests.

Family Crests and coats-of-arms are increasingly popular ways to give a sense of historical background.  Most African American families create their own crests because they do not have a long lineage that they can find.  In many ways, designing a crest is more fun than inheriting one.  It becomes a family venture and tells the history with symbols. Many families have encouraged their youngest members to design the crest, thereby giving them a sense of ownership of the reunion. Once the family crest is designed, it stays the same from then on.

The symbols used are quite varied.  A buffalo may represent an American ancestor, while a lion may represent an African ancestor.  Broken chains are a powerful symbol of the capture of persons into slavery for some, but may represent the end of slavery for others. Corn and other vegetables usually represent farming activity, while farming tools are also popular.  A cross is frequently used, but in different configurations, representing a Christian family.

Designed by Lucille Wiggins prior to the first Benton reunion in 1981, the Benton family emblem displays hands clasped through a heart.  “The heart is a symbol of the love and unity that has always been part of the Benton family and its descendants.  The clasped hands signify the prayerful moments that the Committee held during the opening and closing of each meeting.”

Another crest, the Bullock family crest, has four fields. It was designed by Renee Brown when she was just sixteen.

  • The Bible in the upper left represents George and Sallie Bullock Sr.’s commitment to their religious faith.
  •  The capital letter ‘B’ in the upper right represents the African American family name, Bullock.
  • The tree in the lower left stands for the various branches of the Bullock family clan.
  • The Bundle of Wheat in the lower right represents the farm owned by George and Sallie Bullock, Sr. and the Parmele homestead.  Sixteen stars represent George, Sallie, and the fourteen children they raised.  The crest has been placed on T-shirts, hats and umbrellas, as well as fashioned into a medallion and made into a plaque.

The Kountze-Dugger family has used a patchwork quilt to tell its story.  Accompanying it are the following words:  “Like a patchwork quilt, the family is made up of many different members.  Each one of us is distinct and unique but we are also joined together as one cohesive unit.  Our pattern is intricate, our strength interwoven and like a quilt, once all of the patches have been sewn together, the product provides great warmth.”

Opalene Mitchell appealed to the whole family to get involved in creating their Flo-Line family crest.  She sent out a card with suggestions and family members were asked to check one or more of the following ideas to be included:

  • Idea #1.  Include a tree to stand for the connection we have to earth
  • Idea #2   Include a picture of the world for the diversity of the family
  • Idea #3   Include something to stand for our spirituality
  • Idea #4.  Other Ideas

Mrs. Mitchell’s idea may be a great way to get family members involved in the reunion.  People could bring their pictures to the reunion and family members could work together to make a whole family crest.

Originally Posted January 21, 2014 as: With Family Crests, Family Historians Take a Cue from the Game of Thrones / blog

June, 2014:  VISUAL PRESENTATIONS / by Ione Vargus

One of the interesting aspects of writing this blog is that I’ve come to realize how the methods that families use to share their history have changed dramatically over time.  The family charts that took up a great deal of wall space are now passé. Pasting photos in a scrapbook have been superseded by “scrapbooking,” a veritable art form that incorporates family photos, words, and other media with creative designs meant to engage and delight future generations.

When discussing visual presentations, I used to mention slides. In fact, for many years, I used slides to talk about benefits of reunions, the Family Reunion Institute, as well as to show photos of activities at various family reunions. Trying to find a slide machine today is nearly impossible! Instead, PowerPoint, which actually consists of slides and allows for more flexibility, is a more modern presentation tool. I also used to talk about the use of VHS tapes.  These, too, have been practically replaced by DVDs.

Today, the video camera is still useful to present historical presentations.  Most often, these videos contain photographs of ancestors as well as family group photographs from previous reunions. They are part of fun reunion activities, help tell the story of today’s generations to those of tomorrow, and can be set to upbeat music.

Floyd Riley, who was the chair of the Toomer Family Reunion for many years, has a large number of first cousins because his grandfather had sixteen children. He believes the video camera is a fantastic way to record information to research family history. As a presenter at the Family Reunion Institute conference, he told his audience: “At the reunion, video cameras are an ideal manner in which to record the events of multi-family gatherings and to give the viewer an opportunity to be a firsthand observer to individuals interacting with one another.”

Floyd shares what he did with his own family. “All of a sudden one day, I decided I was going to stop at as many family member’s houses as I could.  I didn’t call them or tell them I was coming.  First, I sat home and did an introduction.  I went to my uncles, my cousins, my parents—we have a huge family.  I did it between Christmas and New Years.  I went to thirty-four homes and got a total of about forty-seven family members on the tape. Some family members shared talents such as singing, telling stories, and reciting.  I also went to the Toomer Plantation family graveyard and videotaped tombstones, the names, and the births and deaths…. To go along with the tape, I did a little brochure. Everyone in the family wanted the tape. Some people who bought the tape haven’t even looked at it since the reunion, but it is there for their children.”  Only by making these videos did Floyd also notice the many similarities in appearance and voices of family members!

Originally Posted December 17, 2013 as:  Using Visual Stimulation to Pass On Your Family Stories / blog

April, 2014:  FAMILY HISTORY - PHOTOS, QUILTS & COOKBOOKS / by Ione Vargus

Continuing the blog series I began last month, I’m writing today about three “crafty” ways families tell their family histories. Although “DIY” has become a popular mainstream catch phrase in recent years, families have been using DIY crafts to tell their stories for ages! These methods highlighted below allow designated family historians to get artistic and show off their clan’s unique personality.


Thirty years ago, I interviewed a family that brought scrapbooks to their reunion with old black and white photographs taken in the 1920s. They apologized for the way in which they displayed them. “We’ve always Xeroxed them, which sounds horrible, but we always did and put them in this book.”

Perhaps no family would do exactly that today, and a newer method, scrapbooking, has become a popular pastime. Scrapbooking offers delightful projects for family members to capture and create memorabilia of the reunion itself.  Beverly Edwards and Sue Serio, who taught scrapbooking for many years at the annual Family Reunion Institutes’ Family Reunion Conference, share these insights:

“Why is this such a huge hobby? We think it’s because it involves preserving memories…and everyone has memories. It is a way of telling the story of you and your family. It has become a more sophisticated exercise than old-fashioned cutting and pasting. It is the practice of combining photos, memorabilia and stories, and arranging them on a page to be lovingly preserved in an album that will help protect them from deterioration.  It now takes advantage of scientific knowledge in the area of photo preservation.”


Making a quilt can also be a fun way to tell family history. For several years, the Family Reunion Conference featured a workshop on making family quilts, teaching families how to use symbols, images, and events that record the history and heritage of the family through story quilts. The first presenter of the workshop, Opalene Mitchell, wrote a comprehensive manual titled “A Stitch in Time: Capturing Today for Tomorrow.” The manual, which may be purchased through the Family Reunion Institute, detailed the process of how to involve family members, even though they may be scattered, in making such a quilt. It also offers suggestions on how to develop by-products of the quilt, such as stationery, puzzles and posters.


Families have also preserved delectable little slices of daily life by using cookbooks to tell their history. The family cookbook organizer collects recipes and a little narrative about each person to be included in the cookbook. In time, cookbooks will be a nifty historical record that passes down information to future generations. Families don’t have to worry about the process of publishing because there are publishers who specialize in cookbooks.

Bessida Cauthorne White was the editor of her family’s cookbook, Help Yourself! There’s a God’s Mighty Plenty. The book expressed the culinary traditions of two Essex County, Virginia families dating back to 1850. Says Ms. White, “Because so many family traditions involve food, particularly in African American families, recipes serve as important historical and cultural documentation. When these family classics are not recorded, our unique foods and related traditions grow dimmer and dimmer with each generation until they are lost altogether simply because we failed to record them…Think how wonderful it would be if you had your grea- grandmother’s or grea- great-grandfather’s recipes, and just as important, if you had documentation of their lives.”

An earlier cookbook made by two sisters, Norma Jean and Carole Darden, told their mother’s and father’s family histories in a most unusual way. In the book Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine: Recipes and Reminiscences of a Family, each chapter includes a photograph and a personal anecdote. From wine-making to cosmetics, each relative portrayed was well-known in the family for a particular recipe. Fourteen years after the original release, a new edition was reissued. The authors’ stated, “With a few exceptions, all of the family members upon whose stories we relied to write this book have passed on. The lessons we learned from this are everyone’s lessons—oral history is fragile and should be made concrete by all methods available (tapes, photos, videos) with a sense of urgency.”

Originally Posted 11/21/2013 as:  3 Crafty Ways to Show Off Your Family History / blog

May, 2014:  FAMILY HISTORY - CHARTS, TREES & PLAYS / by Ione Vargus


Everyone has a family history. The sharing of history gives family members a sense of identity, a legacy and a tradition to be passed on for generations. And as we hear our family history, we come to understand who we are and where we belong.One of the major activities at family reunions today is telling the story about the family’s ancestors and updating information about them or newfound family branches. This activity is important for all racial and ethnic groups. Gaining a picture of what our most recent forbears achieved or suffered can help us recognize progress. Today’s accomplishments could not have happened without the earlier struggles.However, telling the family history in the same way year after year can bring a yawn. Thus families have found interesting ways of sharing their history. I have observed or heard of at least 25 different ways, and use the phrase Telling the Story to describe the act of sharing the history. Through this and later blogs, I will go into more depth about the variety of ways, sharing a few at a time. Please note that my reference to the family is the extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and even close friends who may attend the reunion.

#1 Family Charts
When I began my research on African American family reunions over 25 years ago, families were mainly revealing history through family charts. The historian would have collected information from individual members, the family Bible which often recorded births, weddings, and deaths, and available census records. After receiving as much information as possible, the historian developed a chart with lines connecting ancestors and branches. The chart tended to be several sheets of paper taped together so that everyone could see who was related to whom. It took up a great deal of space and the chart might need to be attached in some way to a wall. During the year, additional information such as new branches might be added and sent to the family.Even though they were cumbersome, charts were also placed in family reunion directories. Charts are not completely obsolete as a means of telling the history but with the explosion of genealogical resources and technology, they have been superseded.

#2 Family Trees
Another early source for sharing the family history was a family tree. We’ve all probably seen a simple tree with the names on branches representing families. Over time, family trees became more artistic but sometimes more complicated. One of the largest such visual trees was designed by Mrs. Thelma Doswell of the Blackwell family reunion. It was on a 9 by 12 foot canvas. A total of 3333 names of Blackwell descendants were on written a very large backdrop. These names were family members who Mrs. Doswell had identified only from 1957 to 1972! By 1986, she had an additional 7,000 names, but adding those names to the tree was too expensive to be feasible. With today’s technology, newfound information can be added to one’s family tree and printed without too great an expense.

#3 Plays
Another interesting way to present the family history is through skits and plays. Some plays may dramatize a specific incident in the life of the family. Other plays have covered several generations of the family going back as far as they could. “A family play brings to life the family’s history and allows them to experience the emotions of that history using their own talent,” comments Bill Vargus who wrote a play about his ancestors which other young people at the Kountze/Dugger reunion acted out. This play began with the story of Neptune Branch, an enslaved man, who agreed to fight with his master against the British during the Revolutionary War in exchange for his freedom. As he lay wounded in one of the last battles of the war, Branch was informed that the Americans had defeated the British but was later re-enslaved. The play proceeds to tell the stories of succeeding generations, focusing on how these ancestors overcame the odds. Not only does a play make a very nice lesson for the young people and children but since they are the actors, they can feel really involved at the reunion.

In the next blog, I will chat about other ways of Telling the Story.

Originally Posted 10/10/2013 as:  Act It, Chart It, Branch It: 3 Fun Ways to Tell Family Stories at Your Family Reunion / blog

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