Belle Isle: Still Part of the Family

y the time you read this, I will have barely recovered from the 37th annual Cooper Family Reunion. My dad, the baby of 13 children, was raised in an abandoned church in Littleton, Virginia. He is now 82, which means that I have about fifty-leven cousins that I get to see or meet for the first time every year when I go back to the Mid-Atlantic.

Our reunions are highly organized affairs, complete with officers, business meetings, family dues, a banquet that includes awards and scholarships, and a church service. It’s been a staple of my summers for most of my adult life. Growing up, my son used to relish sitting at the honorary table like an O.C. (Original Cooper) and listening to stories about chopping cotton, sharecropping, and life without basic amenities like electricity and indoor plumbing. A reunion was not complete without Uncle Wilbert “Bubba” Cooper – a decorated veteran, scholar and brother of Omega Psi Phi – spontaneously stepping like a Q-dog in his white suit and shoes to match. Or a protracted procedural argument staged by my dad during a family meeting (he is also a veteran, but missed his calling as a lawyer). And what would a weekend together be without my Aunt “Clyde” cussing someone out, may she rest in peace? (She was also the angel who bought my wedding dress).

While many different families from all over the world have reunions, the notion has particular resonance in the black community. Black Meetings and Tourism Magazine reports in 2014 that about 90 percent of all family reunions in the United States are hosted by black families. And, according to a U.S. Travel Association survey of African Americans who took domestic trips in 2012, 79 percent traveled for leisure that year, mostly to attend a family reunion.

I suspect that we care so much about family reunions in no small part because of the legacy of slavery and its aftermath. A family reunion is like gathering up the limbs of family trees that were severed by that cruel institution and, decades later, by the Great Migration. African Americans have a special need to cling to each other over time and distance, and to know who “our people” are.

And that’s why summer in Detroit isn’t complete without a family reunion on Belle Isle. I was curious, however, how Belle Isle’s switch from a wide-open city park to a more regulated state park may have affected the island’s reunion tradition.


On a random Saturday, I drove around the island looking for reunions. They were easy to find – just look for at least 100 people wearing the same T-shirt. Sitting in the shade beneath a shelter near the children’s playscape was Inez Jones, 75, whose youngest great grandchild was a 3-year-old who was happily being passed from lap to lap.

“I’m the oldest girl left of my five siblings,” Jones said. The oldest male, who was also sitting beneath the shelter, was 85. “We came here from Sunflower, Mississippi when I was only 15. It’s so good to be out here getting the whole family together. We needed this. We haven’t gathered for a happy occasion since 2009.”

With T-shirts that read, “Link to our Past, Bridge to our Future,” the Perry family was about 300 strong and having a ball. And they weren’t alone. I talked to members of three different reunions and the feedback was clear: Everyone was relaxed, happy and enjoying the island, harassment free.

Not counting the early snarls with overzealous policing, it appears that Belle Isle is a spiffier, cleaner, quieter, more family-friendly place to reconnect with your cousins than it has been in recent memory. As always, planning is key. If you want a shelter, get online and make your deposit a year ahead of time. That’s not new, but it can be pricey. Which is why many families do what they always did – send someone out to Belle Isle at the crack of dawn to put down stakes in a prime spot near a grill and under a tree.

By most counts, our jewel is gleaming brighter – and still very much in the family.

Desiree Cooper is the author of KNOW THE MOTHER, a collection of flash fiction. 

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