[Maryann] Reid, 31 and single, dreams of wedding bells. But not just for herself. She wishes they jangled more for her peers in the African-American community, where the marriage rate is 36 percent and 70 percent of children are born out of wedlock.
Statistics like these are what convinced Reid to take matters into her own hands: She has christened Sept. 27 “Marry Your Baby Daddy Day.” An act of grass-roots social engineering, her effort to wed unmarried black couples who have children echoes efforts—by government, churches, and social welfare groups—to strengthen the institution of marriage.
The first Marry Your Baby Daddy Day, in 2005, was marked by an all-expenses-paid wedding at the House of the Lord Church in Brooklyn for 10 black couples with children. Ten more walked down the aisle at Manhattan’s Riverside Church last September .
For each ceremony, Reid convinced dozens of local businesses to donate goods and services—such as designer dresses, bouquets, wedding cakes—$90,000 worth for the first mass wedding, and $125,000 for the second.
Reid hasn’t earned a dime from the enterprise, but she claims she seeks something more intangible. “I want to go back to what African-Americans were known as,” she says, citing the decline of marriage among blacks, a trend that scholars attribute to factors ranging from the legacy of slavery to rising incarceration rates among black men. “They have historically been a married people. But now we don’t have any family structure in our community at all.”
Reid and a volunteer wedding planner chose 10 couples from the New York area, following an interview process that included home visits in which they looked for evidence of a strong family life: orderly homes with personal space for the children, family photos on the wall, warm interactions between family members.
Reid has an unusual set of criteria for choosing her couples: They must have a proven track record of stability (some relationships go back 15 years) and they must already have children and live together. In short, they must have all the attributes of a good marriage, sans vows.
Linda Malone-Colon, former director of the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center and an expert in black marital relationships, is troubled by some aspects of the enterprise.
“We know that when people live together before marrying they’re twice as likely to get divorced when they do marry,” she says, citing numerous studies. “I think we should be careful about tacitly encouraging cohabitation.”
And while the Rev. J. Lee Hill Jr., the Baptist minister who performed the 2007 Marry Your Baby Daddy Day wedding at Riverside Church in Manhattan, says he doesn’t condone cohabitation before marriage either, he is supportive of Reid’s project. “My hope and dream is that [these couples] will continue to stay in their relationship, and that this will be an encouragement for them to live their lives more in sync with biblical injunctions,” he says.
For her part, Reid is pragmatic. “If you have children,” she says, “you should be living together to raise the child. That’s the first sign to me that a couple has made a commitment.” So far, all 20 of Reid’s couples remain married.