The weather was blustery, with an occasional chill, but the mood was joyous and spirits warm as Apalachicola’s Hillside community played host last weekend to the 10th anniversary of the county’s annual African-American History Festival.
The typically modest parade started on time, but all but a few onlookers were absent, declining to brave the chilly temperature.
Serving as Grand Marsha was Elinor Mount-Simmons, a teacher of more than three decades in the Franklin County Schools, and one of the founders of HCOLA (Hillside Coalition of Laborers for Apalachicola) that has organized the festival annually since 2004.
“I was totally honored and humbled, it tickled me they would select me for it,” she said.
The constitutional officers were there, and County Commissioner Noah Lockley, and the usual accompaniment of police and firefighters, plus the Hillside Royalty in a float of their own.
On the float were Tiny Mr. Hillside: Bo Simmons III, 3 ½; Tiny Miss Hillside Mercedes Davis II, 2;Hillside Prince Ajayden Lewis, 5; Hillside Princess Alexis McNair, 6; Mr. Hillside Kiondre Sewell, 11; Miss Hillside Shine Pearson, 11; Hillside Queen Bria Walker, 16; and Hillside King Jathan Martin, 16.
By mid-morning, the sun had burst over the growing crowd at the Sixth Street site, next to Holy Family Senior Center, where the festival was held.
Introduction of the grand marshal and royal court followed a blessing of the festival from Covenant Word Pastor David Walker, the singing of the National Anthem by Angelita Stephens, a recitation from memory by Alexis O’Neal of President Barack Obama’s African-American History Month proclamation and the singing of the Negro National Anthem by Angeline Stanley.
Mayor Van Johnson then focused on the meaning of the event in his welcoming remarks.
“We are here over this wonderful Apalachicola weekend to recount and celebrate the many contributions made to America by those who came before us - the sons and daughters of Africa,” he said. “It was because of the scars left on their bent, but not broken, backs and the blood that slowly dripped from their brow that compelled our forefathers to seek out justice and equality so that all men, including black men and black women - could share equally and jointly in the rights of liberty and freedom.
“As descendants of slaves and freedom fighters, we must wholeheartedly embrace our heritage, and in doing so - we begin the process of viewing our present as a triumphant part of our past and our future full of endless possibilities,” Johnson said. “Such hope - made up the dreams of our forefathers, unattainable for them, but made possible to us, because they paved the road of opportunity with their dignity and humanity.
“The legacy that we leave behind must include the ability of future generations to make demands, because power has never conceded anything without demands - it never has and it never will,” he said. “For the broader community, the purpose of this celebration is to afford you with an opportunity to become exposed to a proud race of people with a rich heritage, a people that has contributed much without acknowledgment to the successful evolution of this great country.”
The festival featured nearly 20 food vendors, and eight arts and crafts booths, including Panama City’s Cecelia Wynn, who sold out of her sea wind design scarves on the blustery afternoon.
“There were people all over the place, it made me happy to see them buying from the vendors,” said Mount-Simmons. “And our locals were there; we were very pleased.”
In addition, there were educational booths, such as gadgets and experiments from “the science guy,” Florida A & M University science professor Ron Williams.
Also on hand were booths by the county health department’s dental clinic, which gave away toothpaste and toothbrushes; Refuge House; the SWAT anti-tobacco program; the Apalachicola Municipal Library; and blood pressure checks by Natalie O’Neal Booth, RN from Tallahassee.
Damien Davis offered a mime of African American historical moments, with a performance by Jathan Martin and Impact singing group; and by Hillside Dancers for Christ, which featured Morgan Martin, Trinity Hardy, Shine Pearson, Beyla Walker, Tanaya Harris, Aaliyah West, Cheyenne Martin and India Sewell.
Also performing was rapper Dre Robinson, known as “Flo General;” an ethnic fashion show organized by Brenda Cummings; “Steppers’ groove,” which was audience participation line dancing; and Jamming with deejay “Beanie Boy” Bernard Simmons.
The evening featured the band “Unfinished Business,” which included Simmons on guitar and vocals, Glenn Banks on drums, Claude Banks on keyboards, guitars and vocals, Mary Mathis on vocals and tambourine, and Tommy Stevens on guitar
Sunday afternoon featured a worship service with broad participation, including the male chorus from Friendship Missionary Baptist, who included Willie Joe Walker, William Key, Henry Brown, Granville Croom and Pastor James Williams, with musician Kenny Turner and Jhaki Davis. Elder Roderick Robinson Jr. delivered the keynote speech.
“The festival went quite well, the weather was a sticking point,” said Mount Simmons. “It is our commitment to always have it on the Hill and never charge admission. That’s what it’s all about, people having a great time, out in the open.”