Tag Archives: reunion

100 Years Strong

August 7, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Bryant-Fisher family reunion celebrates an important milestone in 2017—its 100th anniversary. The three-day reunion event will conclude with a final day of festivities in Elmwood Park.

The “Dozens of Cousins,” named for the 12 branches of the prodigious African-American family, will gather in Omaha on Sunday, Aug. 13, to eat, converse, and renew bonds of kinship while reinvigorating ties to local neighborhood roots.

The first reunion was a picnic in 1917 held at Mandan Park in South Omaha, where family roots run deep. Mandan hosted the picnic for 74 years. Its trails, gardens, and river views offered scenic backdrops. The park is also near the family’s homestead at 15th Street and Berry Avenue, and Graceland Park Cemetery (where many relatives are buried).

The picnic, which goes on rain or shine, relocated to Carter Lake in the 1990s and has since gone to various locales. It is coming to Elmwood Park for the first time this year.

Hours before the picnic, a dawn fish fry kicks things off. With bellies full of fried food, the descendants of Emma Early head for a family worship service followed by the picnic.

Always present is a star-studded menu of from-scratch American comfort and soul food staples: ribs, fried chicken, lasagna, collard greens, black-eyed peas, mac and cheese, potato salad, and more.

The family’s different branches provide tents under which they set up their family feasts. Monique Henry belongs to the Gray tent and says everyone waits for her first cousin Danielle Nauden’s peach cobbler to arrive on the table.

The meals may be the highlight, but the day also includes games, foot races, a dance contest, and a pie/cake baking contest, which Henry says is mainly for the teenagers. The baking contest garners between 20 and 50 entries, depending on the size of the reunion.

Competitions are an intense part of the picnic gathering.

Film-television actress Gabrielle Union, the star of hit BET drama Being Mary Jane, is a descendant who grew up with the reunions. She understands what’s at stake.

“Having a chance to compete against your cousins in front of your family is huge,” Union says. “Some top athletes are in our family, so the races are like the Olympics. Each section of the family is like a country sending their best athletes. You trained for it.”

Union vividly recalls her most memorable race: “I wore my hair in braids but tucked under a cap. I won the race, and then somebody shouted, ‘That’s a boy,” thinking this fast little dynamo couldn’t possibly have been a girl, and I whipped off my cap like, ‘I’m a girl!’”

Although the large family has expanded and dispersed across Omaha and nationwide—and descendants of Emma Early Bryant-Fisher now number in the thousands—the picnic has remained in Omaha the second Sunday of August as a perennial ties-that-bind feast.

Union returns as her schedule allows. The actress grew up in northeast Omaha, attending St. Benedict the Moor. She often visited relatives in South O, where the home of matriarch Emma (a street is named after her) remained in the family.

Union introduced NBA superstar husband Dwyane Wade to the reunion last year. “It was important for me for Dwyane to come experience it,” she says. “No one I know has a family reunion of the scale, scope, and length we have. It’s pretty incredible. It says a lot about the endurance and strength of our family. It’s a testament to the importance of family, sticking together, and the strength that comes out of a family that recognizes its rich history and celebrates it.”

A tradition of this duration is rare for African-Americans given the historic struggles that disrupted many families. Bryant-Fisher descendant Susan Prater James says, “The reason for celebrating the 100th is that we’re still able to be together after everything our ancestors went through.”

“There’s nothing I can complain about [in terms of facing] adversity [that] someone in my family has not only experienced but fought through, and not just survived but thrived,” Union says. “I come from a long line of incredibly strong, powerful, and resilient strivers, and I pull from that daily.

We recognize our uniqueness and specialness, and we never take that for granted. I think with each passing year it just gets stronger and stronger.”

The family tree gets updated with a new history book every five years. “Dozens of Cousins” social media sites keep the grapevine buzzing. The family migrated from South Omaha to North Omaha many years ago, and also once had its own North O clubhouse at 21st and Wirt streets. The Dozens of Cousins, Inc. became a 501c3 in 2016.

A century of gatherings doesn’t just happen.

“We get together all the time, and anytime we get together it’s a celebration,” says Bryant-Fisher descendant Sherri Wright-Harris. “We love on one another. Family has always been instilled as the most important thing you have in this life. This is a part of the fabric that makes us who we are.”

“We don’t know anything different,” says Henry, another Bryant-
Fisher descendant.

“That’s ingrained from the time you’re born into the legacy,” family historian Arlett Brooks says. “My mother committed to her mother, and I committed to her to carry this tradition on. This is my love, my passion. I just think it’s important to share your history, and I want our youth to know the importance of this and to treasure what we have because this is not a common thing.”

The reunion has evolved from a one-day picnic to include: a river boat cruise, skate party, memorial ride (on a trolley or bus) to visit important family sites, banquet dinner-dance, and a talent showcase. Milestone years such as this one include a Saturday parade. Headquarters for the 2017 reunion will be situated at the Old Market Embassy Suites.

The reunion’s Friday night formal banquet means new outfits and hair-dos. But renewing blood bonds is what counts. “It’s a way for young and old to reconnect with their roots and find a sense of belonging,” Prater James says.

Representing the various branches of the Bryant-Fisher family takes on added meaning over time.

“No matter how old you are, no matter how down you get, on that day everything seems to be looking better,” Marc Nichols says.

Cheryl Bowles says she “felt sick” the one reunion she skipped.

Arlett Brooks says she has never missed a reunion, and she’s not about to miss the 100th. “You only get the centennial one time,” Brooks says.

New this year will be a family history cookbook complete with recipes, stories, and photos. Catfish, spaghetti, greens, and cornbread are faves. The history cookbook is expected to be printed and ready for sale at the reunion.

Union says fun and food aside, the real attraction is “hearing the stories—the important stories, the silly stories—and learning the history before people are gone.”

Visit bryantfisherreunion.com for more information.

Monique Henry

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of Omaha Home.

Family Ties

August 26, 2013 by
Photography by Chris Wolfgang

Killion family members from all over the country take turns hosting reunions every two years, a ritual that’s been going on now for over three decades. Jim and Anna Killion of Omaha had a chance to relive shared memories with 50 of Jim’s blood relatives and their spouses, most of them elderly, when the couple hosted the gathering July 19-21 at the Marriott Regency. Advancing age and health issues have pared down participation; reunions used to draw over 100.

Since 1985, the Lewandowski clan has met every three years in several different states and always over the Fourth of July weekend. Kathy Aultz of Omaha welcomed more than 250 people, including a two-week-old baby, to her home turf for this year’s reunion. The fest took place at Mahoney State Park, where families stayed in cabins or nearby hotels.

A 90th birthday party for Marian Leach of Omaha, organized by her daughter, Kathy Meier Morris of Columbus, Neb., provided a much-anticipated get-together of the Meier/Leach immediate family in early June. The last time Meier Morris, her two brothers, and their families converged on Omaha (outside of weddings and funerals) was 10 years ago for Leach’s 80th. The community room at Pacific Springs Village in West Omaha, where Leach lives independently, provided an intimate space for heartfelt congratulations.

Three family social gatherings—each different in size, scope, and purpose—nevertheless answer a basic need most Americans share: the need to belong.

“We tell our history through stories. By gathering families together, you have the opportunity to reconnect,” muses Aultz, who, as executive director of the Douglas County Historical Society, dedicates both her personal and professional life to preserving and sharing the past. “Reunions keep us grounded.”

Successful reunions have a central purpose. For Aultz and her relatives, the marriage of Anton and Sophia Lewandowski on May 6, 1919, in central Nebraska provided the reason to celebrate. Aultz’s mother, 88-year-old Esther Lewandowski Kaminski, was the first of 10 children born to the couple.

“I put Grandma and Grandpa’s wedding pictures up a lot of places at the reunion because that’s when our family tree started,” says Aultz.

“We tell our history through stories. By gathering families together, you have the opportunity to reconnect.” – Kathy Aultz

The family tree now has 449 leaves on it and is still sprouting. Aultz contacted every family by letter over a year ago about the reunion dates and then followed up with several e-mails. A nod to the fierce pride the group feels about their Polish heritage could be found in the handouts: a cookbook with favorite Polish recipes that families e-mailed to Kathy ahead of time, and a refrigerator magnet made of cloth and shaped into a pierogi (Polish dumpling).

The Lewandowski reunions include lots of games for the children, golf tournaments for adults, outings (a busload of people visited the Holy Family Shrine in Gretna), endless buffets, and socializing that lasts into the wee hours of the morning.

Genealogy spurs the Killions to gather biannually. They have traced their roots to an ancestor, possibly Irish, who sailed from England and landed on the shores of North Carolina in 1755. Descendants, many of whom live in Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska, spend reunion time visiting cemeteries, checking dates on gravestones, documenting family historical data, and touring places of historic significance; a passion not necessarily shared by the younger generations.

“Anyone under 40 couldn’t care less about history and antiques because they haven’t reached an age where it’s important to them,” laments Killion, 73, who acts as keeper of the spreadsheet that contains 225 family names, addresses, and phone numbers.

Then, with a wry smile, Killion continues, “I called Omaha Magazine to get some handouts because it has a great events calendar, and she asked me, ‘What age group are we addressing?’ And I said, ‘Seventy and over. You know, yesterday’s teenagers!’”

As reunion organizer for the past 15 years or so, Killion knows the importance of nailing down dates and hotel space at least a year in advance, no matter where the event is held. Almost 100 members of her husband’s family don’t have e-mail, forcing Killion to use the U.S. Postal Service for the initial Save the Date letter that also contains the location and registration information. She then follows up with phone calls.

“Anyone under 40 couldn’t care less about history and antiques because they haven’t reached an age where it’s important to them.” – Anna Killion

“One of my favorite tricks is to put the invitation on iridescent paper. That way it doesn’t get lost,” chuckles Killion, who’s been married to Jim for 48 years and together raised six children.

No ‘snail mail’ for Meier Morris; she used Facebook and cell phones to gather about 30 members of her immediate family and stepsiblings to Omaha for a reunion that actually served a dual-purpose.

“We had a noon baby shower for one of my daughters, who is due in September, at Upstream that Saturday,” says Meier Morris, who explains that the men played pool and ate lunch there. “Mom’s party was at 7 that evening, and we had it catered. It was easy. Our family stayed at the Embassy
Suites La Vista.”

“I was just thrilled to see everybody,” exclaims Marian Leach, a grandmother of eight and great-grandmother of eight (with one on the way). “I couldn’t believe they would go to that trouble and expense to be with me!”

To which her family might respond, why wouldn’t they give back to a woman who continues to give so much to them? Why wouldn’t they celebrate a woman whose strength, vitality, faith, and loving nature sustained her through the heartbreaking loss of two husbands?

“We all stood up and told ‘mom’ stories,” says Meier Morris. “The grandchildren talked about all the trips she took them on; trips to Cozumel, Cancun, Baja. We just wanted her to know that we love her, and we’re very proud of her.”

The Killions, Lewandowskis, and the Meier/Leach families reached through time, miles, and hectic lifestyles to strengthen the ties that bind them—a legacy worth passing down to generations.