Annual event celebrates African-American life and culture.

The streets surrounding Franklin Square were packed with cars and people last weekend as the 15th annual H’COLA African-American History Festival proceeded full-fledged.

Vendors lined the grounds and music encompassed the area as community members celebrated African-American history, life and culture.

Blue skies, colorful African fabrics and the smell of soul food set the scene for the outdoor, family-oriented event. “We have had such a grand time,” said Elinor Mount-Simmons, president of H’COLA. “This festival is our big signature event, and is our way of giving back.”

Entertainment was held throughout the festival, highlighting local singer and songwriters, as well as talents from outside of the Big Bend. Eric Sharper’s “Dream Reality” and the P and W Trio, both from Georgia, performed, while Tasia Jones recited a spoken word poem.

Other events included a parade, led by grand marshal Fonda Davis, that commenced the festivities, fashion show and a Sunday worship service, presided over by Pastor Garry Reed, of St. Paul AME Church, with Bishop Horace Solomon, from New Life Church, as the speaker.

Fifteen local non-profits and eight food vendors lined grounds adjacent to the Holy Family Senior Center, with many food, clothes and crafts were selling out on the first day. The local health department, library, Democratic party, and several others, had booths as well, providing information and assistance for the community. Serving as a platform for others to showcase what they too can offer to the community, the African-American Festival is a testament of what a tight knit community is.

“It was certainly a great event and I like to think that a lot of people enjoyed themselves,” said Apalachicola Mayor Van W. Johnson, Sr.,, who is serving his 10th year as mayor, and who has seen the importance of this event in his community.

“In its 15 years, it has always been a well attended event,” he said. “The fact that the attendance includes a mixed and diverse group shows that it is embraced by the community at large, which is a positive thing in Apalachicola. I would like to see more things like this happen across the county.”

Johnson said the ethnic fashion show and the portion where children from the community spoke about the history of African-Americans as their heroes, resonated most with him. Taking part in the fashion show were coordinator Sherry O’Neal, Gladys Gatlin, Melissa Miller, Jessie Harris, Martha Greene, Sister Margaret Conley, Alonna Brown, Alonna Brown, Zariah Harvey and Gabrielle Robinson.

Harolyn Walker brought youth speakers on famous black artists and activists. In addition, two more names were added posthumously to the Legends board, Warren Hayward Sr., a bus driver who was instrumental in securing the creation of single-member district, and Clarence Williams Sr., who later served as county commissioner.

On Friday afternoon, at a event overseen by Tami-Ray Hutchinson, four new queens were named. These were Franklin County High School junior Miss Hillside Beyla Walker, Junior Miss Hillside Ma'Halah Griggs, an ABC School fifth grader, Little Miss Hillside Ja'Nya Bell , an ABC School first grader, and Tiny Miss Hillside Harmony Banks, a 4-year-old who attends North Florida Child Development.

The young ladies succeed last year’s queens, Miss Hillside India Sewell, Junior Miss Hillside Trinity Barron, Little Miss Hillside London Lewis and Tiny Miss Hillside Madison Grady.

For first-time festival attendee, Michele Tribiani, the event deepened her appreciation for her town of Apalachicola. “Apalachicola, though a small city, has a big city vibe,” said Tribiani, “By that I mean it encompasses many ethnicities and everyone seems to embrace everybody.”

She said she enjoyed the celebration of life and culture that the festival offered and looks forward to next year’s event.

Held the third weekend of February, the festival is hosted by The Hillside Coalition of Laborers for Apalachicola, a non-profit, community-based organization that offers support to the Apalachicola Bay Area, H’COLA works year round for the betterment of the community, by working with senior citizens and providing meals, to supporting student’s educational needs, striving to impact the lives of those living in Apalachicola.

“H’COLA consists of 15 hard-working men and women,” Mount-Simmons said, “And all come together to give service to the community. It’s our way of giving back, and we enjoy doing it, it is a labor of love.”

JonMichael Francis is a senior at Florida A&M University in the School of Journalism and Graphic Communications.