Every August, a group of family members who go back generations in Upper County gather at a park in Cle Elum to celebrate the heritage of their ancestors who came to the area in search of a better life.

The celebration begins early, when Wesley Craven begins roasting a pig around 5 a.m. Members of the Craven family gather with friends at Cle Elum City park to kick of the Roslyn Black Pioneers Picnic, sharing stories and honoring members of the family who aren’t alive anymore to join them.

The celebration marks President Abraham Lincoln’s announcement in September 1862 that he would emancipate all slaves in states that did not end their rebellion against the Union by January 1, 1863. Hundreds of African American mine workers began arriving in Roslyn in response to an 1888 labor strike, with their families arriving shortly after. The Cravens were one of those families, and by the 1970s were one of the last African American families still residing in the area. Wesley and his brother William still live in Upper County. William served as the mayor of Roslyn from 1975 to 1980 and was the first African American mayor in Washington.

This year is the 41st year of the current incarnation of the picnic, which began in 1978. Family member Ethel Craven Sweet said the roots of the picnic go back to the early 1900s, however. Research records corroborate this account, saying the picnics could be traced back to before 1900.

“My mother said she could remember them making the Mulligan stew,” she said. “They’d make it for two or three days. I don’t even know what it is, but everybody in the city would come out. Not just our race but everybody in the city because there weren’t that many people.”

Eventually, Craven-Sweet said people got older and stopped having the picnic. She said it continued again, only to be disrupted by World War II. These days, most people that attend the picnic are members of the Craven family, but she said that wasn’t always the case.

“In the beginning it was all the miners and them,” she said. “All the families in town. Whites and all came too.”

Craven-Sweet said the early celebrations were held in multiple locations, including Roslyn and South Cle Elum. The current picnic was historically held at Runje Park in Roslyn but was moved to Cle Elum City Park as it was a better fit for the event. These days, most of the family members live west of the mountains. They make the weekend a chance to camp in the surrounding areas and come together to celebrate. As the older generations of the family become unable to organize the event, Craven-Sweet said the younger generations are stepping up to the task to keep the event going.

“Now we have the young people that want to take it over,” she said. “It makes me feel absolutely wonderful.”

Family member Beula Craven-Hart was responsible for reviving the picnic in 1978, and her daughter Beula Grimm said the work of younger generations keeping the event going and in Upper County will be increasingly important in the coming years.

“The younger family members love coming to Roslyn,” she said. “They have good memories of coming and visiting my grandparents. We could have it in Seattle, and we would probably have more people turn out but it’s important for the family members that are here to be close to where their grandparents and great grandparents lived.”

Although most of the family members live on the West Side, one came across the country to celebrate. Jana Jefferson traveled from her home in Detroit to attend. She had gone to the event as a child but had not been since. Now grown, she said she was compelled this year to make the trek.

“I decided we’ve been having this way too long and I need to be with my family,” she said.

At the event, Jefferson was able to visit with multiple generations of her family and soak in the history of the impact the Cravens and other African American families had in the area. She said she plans on attending next year and visiting other sites in the area like the cemetery. Although the trip from Detroit to Roslyn may be long, she said the chance to be close to her roots is worth every mile traveled.

“It is so wonderful, my goodness,” she said. “Just to reconnect with my family members is really special.”


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