2018-02-22 / Around Town

First Black History Festival Celebrated in City

“If race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of becoming exterminated.” – Carter G. Woodson

Newport’s first black history festival, where people of all ages and backgrounds will gather at Emmanuel Church to dance, drum, and celebrate Black History month, will be held on Friday, Feb. 23.

In a way, the festival has been 92 years in the making.

Carter G. Woodson, an early 20th-century American historian, author and journalist became aware, during his studies, of how underrepresented his heritage and culture were in the annals of American history.

In 1915, he and Jesse Moorland, an educator, minister and philanthropist founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life, now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

Woodson and the association launched a week of African American historical studies, in 1926, to help schools build their curricula on the subject, and setting the foundation for what would later become Black History Month.

He specifically chose the second week of February, as it encompassed the birthdays of both Frederick Douglass (abolitionist, human rights leader and consultant to President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War) and Abraham Lincoln himself.

But the one week grew to four, and since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February Black History Month.

According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s website (NAACP. org), Woodson was known as the “Father of Black History.”

“His message was that Blacks should be proud of their heritage and that other Americans should also understand it.”

So it makes sense that a diverse group of people got together to produce the upcoming festival, and that they’re encouraging everyone to attend and participate in executing the event. As the group’s Facebook page says, “This is a free event, so it truly requires a village to make happen! We are looking for volunteers to help with planning and to help the day of the event.” And the location of the event also aligns with Woodson’s conviction that everyone should take part in learning about Black History. "Emmanuel has always been known as 'the church of the people',” said the Rev. Dr. Anita Louise Schell of Emmanuel, in a media release. “Where people of all backgrounds and socioeconomic status gather together as friends to pray and help their neighbors in need."

The core group collaborating on this first black history festival in the City by the 
Kera Washington of the African drumming ensemble Kalfou. The performance is being made possible with funding from the Rhode Island Foundation. Kera Washington of the African drumming ensemble Kalfou. The performance is being made possible with funding from the Rhode Island Foundation. Sea is made up of Sankofa Community Connection, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Emmanuel Day School (EDS), Common Fence Music’s Connecting the Beats program, student groups, parents and artists.

Niko Merritt, executive director of Sankofa, an initiative set up, according to its website, to “build a thriving African American community in Newport County,” asks in a release about the festival, “What took us so long?”

“There was a time when one in four of Newport residents was of African descent, according to census data,” she said. “We no longer make up 25 percent of the community, but we have a strong presence here that should no longer be overlooked. There is so much that we could take pride in, that is never spoken about.”

Tom Perrotti of Common Fence Music, who coordinated the music for the festival, said, “The program combines lessons in life, music and cross-cultural communication. Students are introduced to Southern New England's newer African and Caribbean neighbors through direct interactions, as opposed to textbook lessons.”

The afternoon will include African and Caribbean drumming and dancing, African-inspired crafts, African art, and information on Newport's black heritage.

During the festival, Meritt will lead a collaborative art project, inspired by Alma Woodsey Thomas, an African-American Expressionist painter and art educator. Once completed, the piece will be available for display by local organizations.

Kalfou, the African drumming ensemble scheduled to perform, will be led by Kera Washington, Senior Music Performance Faculty in African Diasporic Drumming, and Director of Yanvalou (a ritual dance originating in Benin, a West African nation) at Wellesley College. She is also a part-time music teacher and a trained African dancer.

Volunteer professional chef, Doreen Beattie, will be providing a full homemade hot lunch, including desserts. The festival will take place from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Emmanuel Episcopal Church and is free and open to everyone.

Free parking is available in the lot across the street. For more information, visit the event's Facebook page: African Drumming & BlackHistoryFestival.

Amy Martin and B. Udoma contributed to this report.

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