Toomer Family Reunion History
Written by Floyd M. Riley
In the summer of 1983, while visiting Dallas Texas, I walked into the Public Library, took the elevator to the top floor and proceeded to the Genealogy Department. After about four hours, I found our first relatives in the United States Census Records for Jacksonville, Florida. These were relatives on the Walker side of the family. Grandmom Toomer’s and Aunt Ida’s (Parson) people. I was excited, but not half as excited as Aunt Ida Parson when I told her that I had found her maternal grandmother; Nancy Guiles. She kept shaking her head in disbelief saying, "Floyd, you found my grandmother? I can’t believe it, you found my Grandmother." Of course, since Aunt Ida is my grandmother’s sister: Bertha Toomer, I had actually found one of my great great grandmothers. From that day forward, Aunt Ida as well as the entire Toomer clan was hooked. Everyone wanted to know about the family history which was being uncovered.
The search for our history was the catalyst which compelled family members throughout the US to spontaneously state, "We need to have a family reunion. The family is getting too large and our children won’t know one another." Everyone wanted it to happen but no one wanted to chair such an overwhelming project. However, they stated that they would help if I agreed to spearhead a planning committee. They felt that there was a connection between the research of our history and planning of an event which would bring the descendants and relatives of Henry and Bertha Walker Toomer together in one place at one time. I agreed to chair the committee and that is how this current Planning Committee was organized.
However, the gathering of the New Jersey Toomers did not begin in 1983. Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, there were several reunions which had taken place. They were not held on a regular basis, however they served the purpose of uniting the family together for a day of relaxation, fun and plenty of food. These reunions were organized by the children of Henry and Bertha and some of the older grandchildren. Reunions for the entire clan were held at various residences of family members and consisted of a one day picnic. James Toomer hosted two reunions on the grounds of Tippin Inn. Albert Toomer, Donald Toomer and Bernice Sullivan each took a shot at doing the same. These reunions were pleasant and much fun was had by the participants but they were sporadic. The last reunion was around 1973 at Tippin Inn before James C. Toomer, the proprietor died. After that there was a ten year gap in the happy gatherings.
So, early in 1984 a group of committed family members decided that they were going to plan a reunion for the family. They began meeting at the home of Bernice Toomer Sullivan. She, along with Floyd Riley, Donald Toomer, Ida Toomer Riley, Dorothea Toomer Watson, Rita Toomer McCann, Patricia Toomer Washington, Eleanor Toomer Oliver and Gilbert Toomer, Sr. began organizing the event. By May, letters had been mailed to the entire family notifying them of the upcoming reunion which was to be held Saturday, September 1, 1984. Plans were made for family exhibits, recreation, and food. For sentimental reasons, the old site for Tippin Inn was chosen as the location. By August, it had been suggested and agreed that the reunion consist of a two day picnic on the 1st and 2nd of September. Games and races were organized for the children and the adults eagerly spent their time studying the historical display of photographs and Census Records. Music was provided by Billy Toomer. It was on this occasion that everyone was flabbergasted when Aunt Ida stated that an unknown portrait found beneath a picture in a frame may be the first wife of Henry Toomer, the patriarch of the family. Apparently no one except her was aware that Poppa had been married prior to marrying Bertha. When questioned, all of his living children ( in their 50’s & 60’s) acknowledged their surprise in hearing this for the first time. When asked why she never shared this information regarding her brother-in-law, she simply replied, "You didn’t ask." The event was a great success. There were between 250-300 people in attendance. The Planning Committee decided to make it a bi-annual event and the family was delighted with their decision.
In 1986 the reunion was held Saturday, August 30, and Sunday August 31. The Planning Committee consisted of Floyd Riley, Gilbert Toomer, Dorothea Toomer Watson, Rita Toomer McCann, Ida Toomer Riley, Patricia Toomer Washington, Bernice Toomer Sullivan and Eleanor Toomer Oliver. They were joined by Ronald S. Reid, Loretta Nichols and Gwendolyn Toomer Wilson. The picnic again was held on the old Tippin Inn grounds. Games, exhibits, and plenty of food was enjoyed by all. Gilbert Toomer, Sr. worked the grill and we ribbed it all day. One memorable event was the Eating Contest which was won by Denise Toomer of Newark, NJ. When asked if she had any comments she said, "I like pork and beans." A dinner/banquet was held on Sunday at the Atco Civic Center. An evening of entertainment highlighting family talent was the format of the program Leslie Riley was the MC and the special guest was Mrs. Dorothy Conley, an educator who had taught three generations of Toomers. Ronnie Reid catered a delicious meal. The tradition of a family reunion tee-shirt was established.
The next three reunions 1988, 1990 and 1992 were held at Aulettos in Deptford, NJ. By this time, the committee wanted to enjoy all of the reunion events. The crowds were large and the planners felt that they were missing out on a lot by being engaged with cooking and distributing food. So, we began searching for a location where we could expand activities, relax and enjoy each others company. The planning committee continued with the display of the family history and photographs. Master Dee Jay Alvin ‘Poosa’ McCann cranked up the music and we began our annual Dance Contests! Everybody remembers Herbert ‘Bunky’ Bethune dancing up a storm on one of these occasions. He didn’t steal the show. He was the show! Additional events included swimming, and the distribution of awards in specific categories to family members in attendance. They were as follows:
Baby Award – Given to the youngest family member
Newlywed Award – Given to the most recently married couple
Age Award – Given to the eldest family member
Distance Award – Given to the individual or family who has traveled the farthest
During this period, additions to the Planning Committee included Catherine Toomer Williams, Denise Toomer Covington, Marianne Reid Cole and Shamele Jordon. In 1992 , Friday evening was set aside for the family religious service. The tradition of family members conducting the entire service was established. The first two services were held at Pilgrim Rest Disciples of Christ Church. Dinner followed at the home of Floyd M. Riley.
The reunions of 1994, 1996 and 1998 were held at Camp Quaxon/Bamboo Gardens in Vincentown, NJ. Although the committee was quite pleased with Aulettos, it was decided that a change was needed to keep up the enthusiasm regarding the reunions. At the suggestion of Loretta Phillips, a search committee visited various proposed reunion sites. Overwhelmingly, Camp Quaxon was selected. Again, we rented the entire park. Activities gained by coming here included miniature golf, basketball, horseshoes, pony rides and fishing. We also added a clown to entertain the children. Along with the guidance and instruction of Coswaylo Harris in 1994, the ‘Steppin Toomers’ made their debut to the delight of the crowds. Beginning in 1994, the religious service on Friday evening was held at Greater Mt. Carmel COGIC because of its larger sanctuary and spacious dining room. Althea Toomer Dabney of Philadelphia, PA. took the initiative to charter a bus to bring the Toomers from Philadelphia to the reunion. She became the first recipient of the ‘Most Enthusiastic Award’. The bus has become a regular expected addition to the reunion. The exhibits continued to grow each year. Recipients of other special family awards were Edwin & Kathy Baylock, Cornelius Toomer, Sr., Susan Toomer Clayton, and many more.
In 1997, we were awed by the professional layout of the first Toomer Family Birthday Calendar produced by Shamele Jordan and Floyd Riley. The content focused on the Toomer Family’s History. Old Photographs on ancestors were included.
At the 1998 reunion, there was a fantastic response to the call for the family displays. Without a doubt, all family branches were well represented. It was the largest yet! During that reunion, the first official Family Reunion Photograph was taken. Additional Planning Committee members were Gladys Toomer Young, Charleen Sullivan Timms, and Cheryl Reid Scott. Committee members joining to plan the 2000 reunion were joined by Marilyn Reid Hill, Helen Toomer Beverly and Judy Hill.
A second Toomer Family Birthday Calendar was produced in 1999. It focused on the baby boomers. The favorite memories of these cousins were collected and shared with the readers. They recalled special events and family members who had an impact on their lives.
From 1983 to 1996, Floyd M. Riley served as chairperson of the Family Reunion Planning Committee. He was succeeded by Catherine Toomer Williams 1996-1997, Marianne Reid Cole 1997-1998, and Shamele Jordon 1998-2000. With each chairperson, there has been an enthusiastic drive to unite and strengthen the family. The leadership has successfully maintained a respectable bank account to assist in subsidizing the costs of the reunion. Much effort and labor has gone into fund raising through the annual smorgasbords, sales of the Toomer Family Cookbook (Catherine Toomer Williams), Toomer Family Birthday Calendars, tee shirts and other fund raisers. The goal remains the same – To bring the family together in harmony.