This year’s 17th annual African American History Festival was a lot like those in year’s past, an exuberant all-day celebration at Franklin Square at Sixth Street.
But it was also new and improved, with a more formal opening Friday night kick-off, and the addition of a pop-up museum adjacent to the grounds that highlighted the history of the Hill neighborhood where the back community has long flourished and prospered.
"The festival was a tremendous success!" said Elinor Mount-Simmons, president of H’COLA, the Hillside Coalition of Laborers for Apalachicola, that organizes the event.
"We were all very-much delighted with every aspect of the weekend, beginning with Friday evening's kick-off, where we introduced our Royal Court, our grand marshals, and unveiled our newly-revised Black Community Leaders profiles, all the way to Sunday's Outdoor Fellowship Service, which was moved inside because of the expected inclement weather," she said.
At Friday night’s kick-off, emcee Tami Ray-Hutchinson introduced the Royal County, which ranged from Tiny Mr. and Miss Hillside, Kayson Bailey and Madison North; Little Mr. and Miss Hillside Bentley Davis and Malaya Modican; Jr. Mr. and Miss Hillside Nehemiah Robinson and Alonna Brown; and Mr. and Miss Hillside Jamal Robinson and J'Necia Penamon.
Following that, Dolores Croom welcomed Wayne and Grace O’Neal, the grand marshals for the festival, which had the theme of "Celebrating a Rich Heritage of Faith, Love, Hope, Family." Married for 62 years, the couple said the key to a happy family is "to put God first, to get married in the church and to raise your children in the church."
Following that, the kick-off unveiled newly enhanced retractable banners for the 11 existing honorees in the Black Community Leader profiles, as well as two new ones. Honored in the past were Rose McCoy, Ed Tolliver, Spartan Jenkins, Noah Lockley Jr. and Sr., Abe and Azalee Johnson, Van Johnson, Dr. Frederick Humphries, Shirley White and Willie Speed. Newly added this year were banners for Warren Hayward, a longtime community activist and Clarence Williams, the county’s first black deputy sheriff and later a county commissioner.
H’COLA presented plaques of appreciation to Danny Collins, who arranged to have Duke Energy fund the banner overhaul, and Curt Blair, who helped originate the exhibit a few years back and who sent a $500 check in gratitude for the honor.
The parade at noon Saturday was longer than usual, no doubt due to it being an election year, and was greeted by sunny skies.
Following a blessing for the festival by HCOLA Vice President Fonda Davis, and the singing of God Bless America by Maxine Kellogg, the gathering received greetings from Apalachicola Mayor Pro-Tem Brenda Ash. Robert and Jhaki Davis performed "Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing," considered the Negro National Anthem, followed by greetings from Sheriff AJ Smith, an introduction of the Royal Court and Grand Marshals, and a ribbon cutting overseen by Mount-Simmons.
"The weekend's highlight is always Saturday and on that day, the entertainment was great, the non-profit vendors shared a wealth of great information, and the for-profit vendors reaped financial gain, as well," said Mount-Simmons. "Even moving the Sunday fellowship service indoors did not dampen the festival's overall joyous spirit.
"H'COLA is also so incredibly appreciative of our generous sponsors, for without their support, the event wouldn't be happening. All-in-all, it was a really fabulous weekend and H'COLA thanks everyone who stopped by," she said.
The Saturday showtime was robust, with poems by Tasia Jones, performances by jazz pianist Kenny Turner, vocalists Temolynn Wintons, Harrison Jones, Harold Byrd and Angel Stephens and Kris Stanley, deejay Beanie Baby and dancers Dance Kraze.
Following the ethnic fashion show, and line dancing, the crowd enjoyed the music of profe4ssional entertainment 225 Uptown Band, from Dothan, Alabama and P & W Trio, from Athens, Georgia.
Across the street, in a vacant house owned by Allyson Speed, the festival goers enjoyed a pop-up museum created by the FAMU School of Architecture and Engineering Technology to showcase the work of its "Apalachicola ‘Hill’ Neighborhood Survey Project."
Together with FAMU Extension Agent Dreamal Worthen and videographer Marcia Smith, who recorded oral histories in conjunction with the project, Assistant Dean Andrew Chin answered questions about the large map and 3-D display that indicated points of interest that once flourished, and some still do, on the Hill.