The coming of summer heralds cook-outs, line dancing, and brightly colored t-shirts iconic of Black family reunions. These events serve as important rituals in African American families that are heavily enmeshed in centuries of American slavery. During these times enslaved families were often broken apart as slave owners sold children, siblings and even married off individuals as chattel.  

As waves of emancipation swept through the country, coinciding with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment guaranteeing enslaved individuals their freedom, many African Americans sought to reunite with lost family members and to define family roles and responsibilities in ways they believed best suited their new circumstances. Their efforts highlighted the importance of family as foundational to their status as free people. 

Searching for Family

With the end of slavery, searching for family members who had been separated or sold away became the focus of many formerly enslaved individuals. The number of years of separation did not deter people from hoping to reunite with lost loved ones. Newspaper advertisements, letters, and word of mouth all were employed as part of the search. The hope was that a positive response might lead to a reunion with family members.    

An advertisement in a newspaper posted by Samuel Dove who is looking for his mother, two sisters and brother.

Ad in Tennessee Newspaper, 1865

University of North Texas Libraries, Portal to Texas History
I am very anxious to get my family together or as much so as possibly. Allen Stephens, 1871

However, the transition to a freedman was not an easy one. Enslaved individuals had been stripped of their names, rights, and identity. This created numerous challenges as families, married couples, parents and children attempted to locate one another.  

Names 

Enslaved individuals often had their names selected for them by their enslaver. Freedom provided the opportunity to make a choice: pick a new name or retain their previous one. Many individuals chose to adopt a new name that represented their new status and desire to control how others addressed them. 

The master’s name was usually adopted by a slave after he was set free. This was done more because it was the logical thing to do and the easiest way to be identified than it was through affection for the master. Martin Jackson, 1937
...All us slaves that was going to take the [slaveholder’s] name Fitzpatrick. I made up my mind I’d find me a different one. One of my grandfathers in Africa was called Jeaceo, and so I decided to be Jackson. Martin Jackson, 1937
I’s birthed right here ... on the old Baldwin place ... Me and Anthony Thomas went to Marshall and married ... in 1869 ... Then I come to live with one my sons here and this land ... old Marse Baldwin owned. Lucy Baldwin Thomas, 1937

Marriage

Formal marriage ceremonies were not encouraged by slaveholders and were a rarity for the enslaved. With freedom, many formerly enslaved men and women participated in official ceremonies to reinforce their commitment to one another or for legal purposes. As husbands and wives, they also renegotiated their roles together as free people. 

Tintype of a Buffalo Soldier and his wife

Tintype of a Buffalo Soldier and his wife 

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Women   

African American women faced a struggle to gain respect for their rights as wives, mothers, and women. Both within and outside their communities, their quest for equal status was questioned. Among other things, they were denied the right to vote, scrutinized if they chose not to work, and subjected to harassment and physical abuse. Defining and defending their place within American society remained a challenge throughout the years after the end of slavery. 

Photograph shows educator and civil rights activist Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964), seated, with book on her lap.

Mrs. A.J. Cooper
C.M. Bell (Firm : Washington, D.C.), photographer
Created/Published between February 1901 and December 1903

C.M. Bell Studio Collection (Library of Congress)
Only the BLACK WOMAN can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.’ Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice from the South, 1892

Born enslaved in North Carolina, Anna Julia Cooper (1858–1964) was a writer, organizer, and advocate for women’s education and civil rights. She received a mathematics degree from Oberlin College in Ohio and a Ph.D. from the University of Paris. In 1892 she published her acclaimed book, A Voice from the South, which expressed her belief that African American women had a central role to play in the struggle for racial equality. 

Children  

Enslaved parents had no legal rights to their children. Their offspring could be taken away or expected to obey the orders of others, despite the preferences of their parents. As free people, African Americans resisted outside efforts to undermine their parental authority or to take their children away through court-ordered apprenticeships to a white person. They wanted to ensure their influence and love were the most important factors in their children’s lives.    

Mothers, once fully assured that the power of slavery was gone, were known to put forth almost superhuman efforts to regain their children. Bvt. Brig. Gen. John Eaton, 1865
A handwritten petition to the county court of Madison County

Court petition regarding the children of Harriet, a freedwoman
The document reads [To the Worshipful the county / court of Marion County / Your petitioner / would respectfully / represent to your worshipful body, that Harriet a freedwoman has three children, one named / Thomas, aged 7 years, another named George / aged about 5 years and the third Philip / about 2 years old which she the [illegible] Harriet / the mother wishes bound to me your petitioner Jeremiah Fuller / Nov. 4th, 1867.] On the verso, in the bottom right corner, in a different hand is the inscription [Dreary] repeated three times.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

A white farmer in Tennessee filed the court document above in 1867 stating that a freedwoman named Harriet wanted her three young children bound to him as indentured workers. Courts often accepted the word of white landowners, even when African American parents protested that they had not given consent to indenture their children.

Records of our Roots 

While newly freed endeavored to reunite with their loved ones despite these challenges, in many cases, newspapers and letters weren’t enough to prompt a reunion. Ultimately, the separation of family proved to be so effective a tool of oppression to disempower African Americans, that its legacy persisted long after the abolishment of slavery.   

However, public interest in family reunification was revived in 1976 after the publication of Alex Haley’s book “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” The book told the story of Kunta Kinte, an 18th-century African, captured as an adolescent, sold into slavery in Africa, and transported to North America, and follows his life and the lives of his descendants in the United States down to Haley, the book’s author. The release of the novel, combined with its hugely popular television adaptation, Roots in 1977, led to a cultural sensation in the United States. 

American actors Cicely Tyson (left) and Maya Angelou (right) look lovingly at a baby in a scene from the television mini series 'Roots'

American actors Cicely Tyson (left) and Maya Angelou (right) look lovingly at a baby in a scene from the television mini series Roots.

Fotos INternational/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The powerful story encouraged many previously splintered African American families to search and document for their own family genealogy. Utilizing a variety of tools such as publicly available archives, slave sale records, family Bibles and blood tests many attempted to trace their ancestral roots to slavery and African villages. However, even with the advantages of modern technology, many today must still grapple with incomplete family histories as a direct result of their ancestors being defined, by law, as little more than property.  

Copy of the Holy Bible containing handwritten records for the Ellis family

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Clara Ellis Payne 

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Clara Ellis Payne

Modern Family Reunions 

The drive to discover and reinforce family connections has continued to guide the African American community through the tradition of family reunions. At these celebratory events, family history is recounted, traditions are taught, and bonds are strengthened through shared memories. Reunions are often held in significant places, where a family has historical roots, or where new generations have moved and thrived. Many include a visit to NMAAHC, where families gather to reinforce their connection to the broader narrative of African American history.   

The Family Reunion Logo for the adinkra symbol

The Jones-Walker family Reunion Logo

Courtesy of the Jones-Walker Family
A family wearing family reunion t-shirts at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

The Jones-Walker Family Reunion at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Courtesy of the Jones-Walker Family
Family reunion / Got to have a family reunion / Family reunion / It’s so nice to come together / To get together The O’Jays, “Family Reunion,” 1975

Another hallmark of the modern African American family reunion are commemorative items such as a program, group photo, and T-shirt that put a tangible stamp on the importance of family ties. The Jones-Walker family reunion logo uses the adinkra symbol of Sankofa, meaning “go back and get it,” evoking the idea of reflecting on the past. 

Explore Your Family History

The Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center helps people begin their family history journey and learn the basics of researching African American genealogy. 

Share this page