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Festival celebrates African-American culture

August 23, 1998

Culture and Heritage festivalBy DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer

photo: MIKE CRUPI / staff photographer [enlarge]




CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - People crowded along Washington Street here Saturday to catch glimpses of African-American heritage spanning the centuries.

Thirty young members of a Virginia Beach, Va., dance group bounced back and forth to a song called "The Drum," which symbolizes the origin of the instrument in Africa.

The drum is rich in tradition and gives people the power to face anything in life, said choreographer Darlene Young, who led the group in the sixth annual African American Cultural and Heritage Festival parade.

Robert Young, Charles Rawlins and Mel Reid marched methodically under a red flag that proclaimed the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers. The military unit was the first black regiment formed north and east of the Mississippi River during the Civil War.

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Classic cars and fire trucks crept along with modified street cars that sent out a low beat from their stereos.

George Rutherford, president of the Jefferson County chapter of the NAACP, is happy with the festival's success. From its beginning on a "shoestring" budget six years ago, the festival has steadily expanded, said Rutherford. The parade alone has tripled in size since last year, he said.

Rutherford said he could not estimate the size of Saturday's crowd, but it appeared to be larger than the 1,500 people that have typically attended in past years.

"It's very nice, very nice," said Brenda Branson-Johnson of Shepherdstown, W.Va. Branson-Johnson said the festival is an excellent way for people in the community to learn about other cultures.

"I think it's something that is needed, more than once a year," she said.

"It brings the races together. Anything that does that is needed," said Rosabell Roman, who runs the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship program in Berkeley County.

After the parade, the celebration continued on the grounds of the Wright Denny Intermediate Schools. Vendors and religious organizations sold jewelry, incense, artwork and clothing, some made in Kenya and Nigeria.

The Nelson Cluster of Episcopal Churches, a group of seven historic Episcopal churches in Jefferson County, sold African jewelry under a tent. Proceeds from the jewelry go to children in eastern Africa who are suffering from AIDS and starvation, said the Rev. Jane Kempster.

A steady stream of customers snapped up scented soap and homemade incense at a boutique operated by Sharon Abdullahi and her husband, Rashik. The couple came to the festival last year after hearing about it at a picnic in Winchester, Va., sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"Charles Town is very nice. People seem very friendly," said Sharon Abdullahi, who lives in Bear, Del.

The festival started Friday night with a banquet at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center in Shepherdstown. Nellie Lawson of Charles Town was given a humanity award during the banquet for her efforts to comfort sick people and help youth in the county, said Rutherford.

Rutherford said he hopes to reorganize the festival next year. Part of the plans are to have an outdoor stage where professional music groups can perform, said Rutherford. Some of the performances could be held at night, he said.

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