African American festival keeps growing

August 17, 2008|By JOSHUA BOWMAN

CHARLES TOWN, W.VA. - Hundreds of people spent Saturday in downtown Charles Town for the 16th annual Jefferson County African American Culture & Heritage Festival.

The festival included a parade, exhibits, bands and speakers. A block dance was scheduled for Saturday night.

The event is put on every year by the Jefferson County Chapter of the NAACP.

"It gets bigger every year," George Rutherford, one of the event's original organizers, said as he looked around the festival grounds off South Lawrence Street.

By midafternoon, as the parade began to unwind, most people had ventured from Washington Street to the festival grounds, where more than a dozen vendors sold jewelry, clothing and food.

Children chased each other around a large grassy area, played on a nearby playground and enjoyed a moon bounce.

Adults wandered between the vendor booths, stood in groups or sat in the grass to talk.

"It's a good excuse to spend the day outside, to spend some time together," said Betty Baylor of Ranson, W.Va., as she sat in a folding chair beneath a large tree. "I come here every year."


Rutherford said it costs between $25,000 and $30,000 to put the festival together every year. Most of the money comes from donations, he said.

Jefferson County Commissioner Jim Surkamp, who announced a $3,000 donation from the county, said the event is something to be proud of.

"So many people are out here, having a good time," said Surkamp, who was one of several elected officials at the festival. "It's really fantastic."

Tiffany Lawrence, a candidate for the West Virginia House of Delegates, called the festival a "great example of what can happen when the community gets together."

"I always say that West Virginians are ordinary people who do extraordinary things," Lawrence said.

Politics seemed to be on the minds of many at this year's festival.

Several festivalgoers wore T-shirts and hats emblazoned with logos and pictures of Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate for president who, if elected, would become the country's first black president.

"It's important to us, to see him representing us," said Ron Turner, 43, of Martinsburg, W.Va., who was wearing an "Obama08" ball cap.

Joe Durham, a former Negro League baseball player who was signing autographs at the festival, said the atmosphere in Charles Town was a far cry from the criticism he got as a player in towns across the country, including Hagerstown.

"They were rough, some of the cities," Durham said. "As an outfielder, I was 20 feet from the white stands most of the time. They could be tough. But to see people out and happy and positive like this, it does me good."

Roy Jefferson, a former wide receiver for the Washington Redskins and Baltimore Colts, read the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Nobel Prize acceptance speech at the festival.

He echoed Durham's comments after he finished reading.

"You know, I read that speech, and then I think about all of these young people participating in the parade today," Jefferson said. "We have a lot of positive people here, the kind of positive force King was talking about."

If you go

What: 16th annual Jefferson County African American Culture & Heritage Festival

When: Today

Where: Festival grounds are in the 300 block of South Lawrence Street, plus other activities at various locations in Charles Town, W.Va.

For information, call George Rutherford at 304-725-9610.

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