Location: Churches nationwide
Annual homecomings have a long tradition among African-American church congregations and families. Depending on the congregation, homecomings may have one or more of several purposes: commemorating a church’s anniversary, honoring its deceased, celebrating its members and encouraging those who have moved away to return for a reunion. Homecomings tend to be scheduled from Memorial Day on through the autumn, when the weather is pleasant for outdoor events. Although many of these gatherings have taken place every year for decades, some have discontinued because a church no longer exists or because church members and families are too widely scattered.
From the time the first black churches were built, homecomings have been common annual events. Some occur when large denominational churches mark such anniversaries as Founder’s Day/Richard Allen’s Birthday, celebrating the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in the late 1700s, and the African Methodist August Quarterly, marking the beginning of the African Union Methodist Protestant Church.
Although not as well known, many African-American churches have held homecomings and “decoration days” for many years. Some homecomings mark a church anniversary. One example is the Tynes Chapel AME Zion Church in Dry Fork, Virginia, built in 1901 with donated lumber and labor of the small black community. As Dry Fork residents moved away, the church’s anniversary drew them back for a homecoming held each summer. They came from Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, and other states for reunions and for sermons, singfests, and picnics.
Some homecomings have been held on the weekend of Memorial Day, which originated in 1868 as Decoration Day to honor American Civil War veterans and to decorate the graves of those who died in that war. Other homecomings have occurred during the spring and summer months when flowers were plentiful for decorating the graves. Summer also was a good time to have “dinner-on-the-ground,” a picnic after a church service.
Creation of the Observance
No specific date marks the beginning of church homecomings; individual churches set their own schedules for such events. In St. John, Kansas, for example, an AfricanAmerican church held homecomings on Memorial Day, when black families gathered and shared a potluck meal, then took part in a group sing. In Boone County, Kentucky, the First Baptist Church in Burlington held homecomings on the church’s anniversary in April; the church was organized in 1881. Sometimes Juneteenth, which celebrates June 19, 1865, when slaves in Texas were notified of their freedom, is selected as church homecoming time. July and August, though, are the months when most church homecomings occur.
A church homecoming generally includes preaching, singing, and dinner-on-the-ground. The church pastor usually begins the homecoming with prayer, followed by the congregation singing hymns. After a sermon, it is time for dinner-on-the-ground. Members of the congregation set up tables and fill them with platters of food. Traditional dishes include fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, ham, potato salad, green beans with fat back, deviled eggs, macaroni and cheese, candied yams, cornbread, and plenty of pies, cobblers, and cakes.
If a cemetery is associated with the church, tending to graves is also part of the observance. Many families who get together at black church homecomings take the opportunity to clean up old burial sites and to preserve genealogical records and the history of a community.
At historic Asbury United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. (founded in 1836), homecoming events take place in late September and may span an entire weekend. Some years the Asbury homecoming kicks off with a concert of gospel or other sacred music. Outdoor activities, including games for children and young people, are held on the street in front of the church, and the homecoming worship service traditionally features a guest preacher. Occasionally, homecoming has been augmented by a revival (see also Church Revivals). Asbury’s homecoming in 2000 included a theatrical production titled Escape on the Pearl. The play dramatizes the story of more than 70 enslaved people, including members of Asbury, who attempted to escape to freedom in 1848 aboard the Pearl, which was to take them to a stop on the Underground Railroad. But they were soon captured, and the incident added fuel to the national debate on slavery.
A church called Roberts Chapel, in a small Indiana community known as Roberts Settlement, has been holding homecomings on July 4th since 1923. About 150 people attend each year, coming from northeastern states, California, and Florida. An important part of the event is preserving the cemetery that has been an African-American burial site since the 1830s. Children from nearby schools come to Roberts Chapel and the cemetery to learn about the community’s history.
Contact and Web Site
Asbury United Methodist Church 926 11th St., N.W. Washington, DC 20001 202-628-0009; fax: 202-783-0519
Butler, Anne. “Historic African-American Church in West Feliciana Still Making a Joyful Noise Unto the Lord.” Town of Francisville, LA, 2005. .net/town/news/afton2005.html. Dodson, John. “Religion and Dry Fork.” Bland County (Virginia) History Archives, 2000. .
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007