by Lauryn Bray, photos by Susan Fried
On Sept. 4, the ROOTS Family Celebration held its 50th annual event at Jimi Hendrix Park. A day full of music, performances, and food, Black people of all ages gathered together on a Sunday to celebrate heritage and family.
ROOTS stands for “Relatives of Old Timers of Seattle” and was named by Arline Steward Yarbrough. The idea for the celebration was born in the early 1970s from a series of dinners attended by Arline, Letcher Yarbrough, and eight other couples who, over time, became estranged from one another. After meeting regularly for a while, they agreed to plan a family reunion. The word quickly spread, and 300 people attended the first reunion at Seward Park. Due to the event’s success, the group decided to make it an annual gathering. Yarbrough derived the name from the early Seattle families who referred to themselves as “Seattle Old-Timers.” Since the start of the tradition, the ROOTS Celebration has only missed two years, 1999 and 2000.
For the past 20 years, ROOTS has been coordinated by The Breakfast Group, a nonprofit organization founded in 1976 by African American men promoting professionalism through youth mentorship. Paul Mitchell, director and co-founder of The Breakfast Group and vice chairman of ROOTS, talked about the legacy of the celebration and the importance of keeping the tradition alive.
“We gather all the Black [people] from far and near — we got people coming all the way from Florida, back East, California just to come here. It’s a once-a-year deal, and you can see all your old friends and people that you [haven’t] seen together for a long time,” said Mitchell in an interview with the Emerald.
The celebration stage was packed full of performances from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. There was a “senior garden” where volunteers handed out bags of food to the picnic’s older attendees, and several families were barbecuing. One tent was advertising the ROOTS 50th Anniversary Recipe Book, while another set up a display of traditional African garb and jewelry. State Farm and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) had tents up as well.
ROOTS is designed to be multigenerational. Mitchell pointed out the children from his family who were at the event and explained the importance of their presence: “We want the young kids to get involved. … We need youth, because the old people gon fade away. For some people, they have the tendency to think that ‘ROOTS’ means ‘old people’; we need all people.”
Mitchell has dedicated 46 years of his life to youth and community services. The Breakfast Group works with Seattle high schools, like Garfield, Franklin, Rainier Beach, and Cleveland, to help show African American youth the many routes to success that are available to them.
“We realized that Black males — if they see it, they can do it. That’s our motto. We try to bring in lawyers, doctors, construction workers, engineers, any kind of person that makes an honest living, so they can do the same thing because we’re doing it. People they see.”
Mitchell is applying this Breakfast Group philosophy to ROOTS by encouraging as many young people to participate as they can. It is his hope that if enough young people get involved, future generations will want to continue the tradition when the older organizers are gone. With the COVID-19 pandemic and the loss of community members, it has become more important now than ever that the younger generations and the families of organizers participate so that they may one day carry the ROOTS Celebration forward.
“We emphasize having young kids come. It’s so important that you guys be involved. … It behooves us to really celebrate this year. We overcame the virus, and the ones who survived are still living and still know each other.”
Check out the Emerald’s coverage of the annual ROOTS event in 2018.
Editors’ Note: This article was updated on 09/14/2022 to replace the word “picnic” with “celebration” due to the harmful connotations of the former.
Lauryn Bray is a writer and developmental editor at the South Seattle Emerald. She has a degree in English with a concentration in creative writing from CUNY Hunter College. She is from Sacramento, California, and has been living in King County since June 2022.
Susan Fried is a 40-year veteran photographer. Her early career included weddings, portraits, and commercial work — plus, she’s been The Skanner News’ Seattle photographer for 25 years. Her images have appeared in the University of Washington’s The Daily, The Seattle Globalist, Crosscut, and many more. She’s been an Emerald contributor since 2015. Follow her on Instagram @fried.susan.
📸 Featured Image: Five generations of the Williams Stockard Tobin Family attended the 50th ROOTS Family Picnic Sept. 4 at Jimi Hendrix Park. The family has been coming to the event almost every year since it began in the 1970s. (Photo: Susan Fried)
Before you move on to the next story … Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support the Emerald!