Sunday, June 7, 2020

Reunited Virtually and It Feels So Good!

The COVID-19 pandemic forced my family to cancel its annual family reunion, sort of.

Aware of the risk of communal spread from in-person gatherings, we opted to exercise caution and not meet at our go-to Kansas state park during Memorial Day weekend. Instead, we took our reunion digital.

The internet enabled us to preserve our decades-long tradition of reuniting to commemorate the life of my second great-grandmother Minnie (Hawks) Lumpkins Barber, her eight children and their many descendants.

I'm pleased to report that the event was a success!

How did we do it? 

Simply put, we made full use of Facebook.

About six years ago, I created a private Facebook group for Minnie's descendants to connect with each other and share old photos and memories. The site has been wildly popular, now boasting over 200 members and regular features such as Throwback Thursday photos featuring pictures from old family albums, commemorative birthday posts, and, sadly, remembrances for when we lose a family member. For all its current political annoyances, Facebook remains a widely used platform that makes it an important tool for connecting and engaging with family who are spread across the United States.

Just days before our scheduled reunion, Facebook unveiled a new tool: Messenger Rooms. Developed to compete with Zoom and Microsoft Teams, Messenger Rooms is a video chat tool that allows multiple users to join a virtual room and, using the webcam and mic on your internet-connected device, meet with users face-to-face. Its integration into the Facebook platform made it the obvious choice (especially because many of our members are not tech savvy and, I feared, would struggle with navigating a new platform. To draw as big an audience as possible, there was an imperative to keep the action under one digital house - lucky for Facebook).

At an appointed time, members of our family Facebook group were invited to join a Messenger Room where they visited, said hello and posed for a group photo. Of course, it's not the same as being with someone in person. But, in the craziness of 2020, it's an affordable alternative that linked family from Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

What did success look like?

Across dozens of electronic devices, we had approximately 100 relatives participate in our virtual reunion activities (mirroring the numbers we regularly see in person). Many folks were online when we posed for our traditional group photo.

Lumpkins Barber 2020 virtual reunion

For the first time in over a decade, we designed a reunion t-shirt. Emblazoned with an adaptation of a famous portrait of Minnie with her eight children (the only surviving photo of Minnie pictured with all of her children), it was a sign of the times: Minnie and her children were retrofitted with face masks (thanks to the talents of a graphic designer), and the shirts were blue cotton to recognize healthcare workers who have been on the frontlines of the pandemic. Nearly 75 shirts were sold.

Minnie Lumpkins Barber and her eight children, retrofitted in face masks

Times of difficulty force us to adapt and roll with the punches. Rather than skipping a year, Minnie's descendants got creative. Despite the contagion and ban on in-person gatherings, we found a way to preserve our traditions and, perhaps, strengthened our family's bonds and commitment to our ancestral heritage.

Have you taken your family's reunion virtual? Share your tips, best practices, and tools that helped you connect and engage.


  1. Kudos to you and your family for reuniting virtually. Prior to our confinement I'd never before noticed old photos of people with masks. Have they kept them hidden away and did their owners not know why they were wearing the masks?

    1. It's been interesting to see family historians share photos of their kin wearing face masks (mostly from the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic). I've not found any such photos in my collections, although I have come across instances where the 1918 pandemic affected my family.

      I should clarify that in the case of the photo of Minnie with her children, I hired a graphic designer to retrofit them all with face masks. That wasn't very clear in my original post, so I've updated it.

  2. That's so wonderful, Michael! And I love your t-shirt design also. So thoughtful, and your relatives will remember this reunion as particularly memorable.

    1. Thanks, Amy. It was definitely memorable (much like the rest of this year). I don't think we're forgetting it any time soon.

  3. Thank you for posting Mike. I'm grateful for the opportunity to see and visit family. I stayed excited from the time our virtual reunion was planned. I didn't want to miss it and thanks to your creativity and dedication I and we didn't have to. This family ROCKS and I get to call all of you mine❣

    1. We make a good team! I couldn't do it without your support.

  4. I was looking forward to reading about your reunion & this did not disappoint! Wonderful!

    1. Thank you for following, Christine. I appreciate it!