African-American Festival celebrates history, health and educationWritten by Morgan Delp | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Health care and education aren’t typically words that come to mind when someone says “festival.” But these are two key components of the annual African American Festival, which combines a fun, family-oriented atmosphere with community advancement initiatives.
“We’re not traditional,” said Suzette Cowell, CEO of Toledo Urban Federal Credit Union, which is presenting the festival for the eighth consecutive year. “If you’re putting something on for the community, you need to do something for the community’s needs.”
The festival, which Cowell said is the largest event for the African-American community in the area, is scheduled to take place July 14 and 15 at the University of Toledo’s Scott Park Campus on the corner of Parkside Boulevard and Nebraska Avenue.
On July 13, a prayer breakfast will take place from 8-10 a.m. at Serenity Soul Food, 725 Nebraska Ave., and a parade will kick off the weekend’s festivities at 10 a.m. July 14. Ticket prices for the festival range from $5-$16, depending on age, time of day purchased and one- vs. two-day passes. Gates open at 1 p.m. both days.
Food, rides, live entertainment and a host of vendors round out the event’s list of family-friendly attractions. Last year, approximately 25,000 people attended the two-day event, and Cowell said she expects the same number, if not more.
Vision from God
The African American Festival was not merely the idea of a group of dedicated community members, although that is who made the festival a reality, but a vision from God bestowed upon Cowell, she said.
In 2005, Cowell received a “Word from God” to organize a citywide festival with the purpose of bringing together the city of Toledo, according to a news release. Cowell is the CEO of Toledo Urban Federal Credit Union, a financial institution founded July 1996 that serves individuals with low to moderate incomes in the Toledo area.
Bishop Duane C. Tisdale, pastor of Friendship Baptist Church, along with Cowell, received visions and confirmations from God in 1992 to establish the credit union, which is currently located on Dorr Street. They worked with other religious and community leaders, including Rep. Marcy Kaptur, to make it a reality.
The union’s purpose was to “be beneficial to the central city and do its best to address the concerns and the needs of their neighbors,” according to the release.
Nelson Grace Park hosted the first annual festival in 2005, which drew about 600 people. In 2006, the credit union partnered with Mecca Temple 43 to combine their Shriner’s Day celebration with the festival, in response to a suggestion by former Mayor Jack Ford, the release stated.
Every year, the nationally renowned Rance Allen Group has closed the festival with the last show on Sunday evening, and this year will be no different. Former performers include Smokie Norful, J Moss, First Creation, The Dramatics, Slave, Zapp, Shirley Murdock, The Manhattans, Nick Colionne and Joyce Cooling.
In 2007, the festival outgrew Nelson Grace Park and formed a partnership with the University of Toledo, where the festival has occurred ever since.
“When I look at the overall picture, it’s the families. Each year they bring another generation with them. I get to see the old and young enjoying themselves,” Cowell said. “To me, it’s like a family reunion.”
Tina L. Hall has been attending the event for the last four years, and says she brings her grandchildren to enjoy the Kids Zone, which will have six or seven rides for children to enjoy both days free of charge, courtesy of State Farm Insurance, said festival chair DeLise Simmons.
Simmons said this year, the rides will be able to accommodate smaller children and families as well. The Kids Zone will also have face-painting and representation from the Toledo Zoo, Cowell said.
“It brings us together in a nice atmosphere where we can meet and greet with friends on a good note, not a sad one, like a funeral,” Hall said. “It brings the community together where we can enjoy and have a good time, listen to music, where we’re not fighting.”
While she has never attended the parade before, Hall said she would definitely consider attending this year. The parade route, which heads east down Dorr Street onto City Park Avenue, ending at Indiana Avenue Baptist Church, includes about 40 groups from the area and out of town, Simmons said. JJ Express Drill and Drum Corp. will participate, along with a drill team from the Dayton area. Fifth Third Bank and Owens Community College are parade sponsors, Simmons said.
When people come from church on July 15, they are invited to enjoy Sunday dinner, complete with chicken and dressing, Cowell said. There is no alcohol served at the festival and people are not allowed to bring in their own coolers of food or beverages.
Cowell said traditional African-American fare and festival staples will be sold by vendors such as Ruby’s Kitchen, La Vista Restaurant and Black Kettle Barbeque. Simmons said there will be fried fish, chicken, corn on the cob, tacos, hamburgers, gumbo, turkey legs, funnel cakes, fresh squeezed lemonade, cotton candy, ice cream and macaroni and cheese.
All ages are invited to enjoy the variety of food and music, which ranges from jazz to gospel, among other genres. Guests are also invited to bring their own lawn chairs to the festival, although folding chairs will be provided.
On July 14, Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes are the main attraction and will play at 8 p.m. Vickie Winans will directly precede the Rance Allen Group on Sunday night at 6:15 p.m.
July 15th’s musical line-up includes many religious groups, including the Cornerstone Church Choir, which makes its festival debut at 3 p.m. The approximately 55-member group has performed at other area festivals and church events in the past.
“Basically, we’re just coming to do what we do as a ministry and a church,” said Alan Maxie, music director at Cornerstone. “We will be doing different styles, not all gospel. There will be some gospel, but some contemporary and other [styles].”
The University of Toledo not only provides the location site, a sponsorship from Pepsi and free parking for the festival, but also educational and healthcare resources for the community.
Shanda Gore, associate vice president of External Affairs at UT, is in charge of the organization of the host site. Her duties with the university also involve leading the Office of Equity, Diversity and Community Engagement, where she oversees the Minority Business Development Center and the Catharine S. Eberly Center for Women. For the first year, both centers will have booths as part of the community access area.
“It’s a way we fulfill our mission of … celebrating diversity’s core values and improving the human condition,” Gore said. “We are building awareness because many individuals don’t know some of the programs we have.”
Gore said after the festival, people will contact the Eberly Center, which provides classes and training to enable women to pursue higher education or a career, and the Minority Business Development Center, which serves as support for minority-owned businesses, after learning about the free, public opportunities both centers offer.
Gore said the University of Toledo Medical Center will be represented with a group of students from the College of Medicine chapter of the Student National Medical Association (SNMA), which uses the festival to spread awareness and raise funds through a raffle.
“One of the missions our chapter has is to go around to minorities and anyone interested in attending medical school at UT [or elsewhere] and help them with the process,” said Hermann Simo, a medical student at UT who attended the festival as an executive member of the SNMA last year. “We try to inform the community and minorities specifically about opportunities to pursue higher education and where to go and who to contact.”
Simo said it’s important that when minorities consider the healthcare field as a profession, they know that people of their same background are already involved. He said it can be helpful for people to see others they can look up to as mentors and role models in the field.
Gore said free health screenings will be provided at the festival from 2-6 p.m. each day. Blood pressure and cholesterol checks are two services that have been provided in the past.
John Adams works in enrollment management and is the senior director for Early Outreach at UT.
Adams said his primary function is to raise awareness about the value of higher education to students in pre-high school years. Information on pursuing higher education will be available at a table at the festival.
Adams said that while the festival focuses on African-American culture, members of all cultures are welcomed and encouraged to attend.
“It’s a great opportunity for people to get together, enjoy each other and have a good time,” Adams said. “It’s an opportunity for everyone in the Toledo community to come together and learn more. With any other festivals you would have throughout the city, like the Polish, Greek and Birmingham festivals, it’s a way to bring the community together and have understanding and respect for other cultures.”
For more information on the Festival, visit toledourban.com.