Shaka Zulu, Stiltwalker and his drum and dance troupe perform near the intersection of East Market and North Roan streets. (Photos by Max Hrenda/Johnson City Press)
Despite early, persistent rain showers, hundreds of people turned out for the opening day of Johnson City’s annual celebration of unity.
On Friday evening, the Umoja Unity Festival opened its 18th year of celebrating the diversity, culture and unification of Northeast Tennessee.
Although the festival itself has been a part of the city’s summers since 1997, its origin can be traced back to 1978. According to Ralph Davis, who chairs the Umoja Committee, the event began as a small gathering among certain community members.
“When we first started, it was just a simple get-together, like a big family reunion,” Davis said.
In the early days, Umoja — a Swahili word meaning “unity” — was celebrated at Carver Park by local members of the NAACP, the Concerned Citizens Group and others as a picnic offering food and games. The festival was, and is, held on the second weekend of August.
“We try to get it as close to Aug. 8 as possible,” Davis said. “That’s the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. This year, it hit it right on the dot.”
In 1997, after the get-togethers stopped, Davis and others involved with Umoja decided to bring the tradition back. In the next 18 years, the festival would move from Carver Recreation Center to Freedom Hall Civic Center before ultimately settling in downtown Johnson City.
“It has grown into a full-blown festival,” Davis said. “It’s a year-round planning activity, and it’s a lot of work, but it has grown tremendously. We feel fortunate that the area (and) the city has grabbed ahold of it and everybody comes together and celebrates unity and diversity.”
Before this year’s festival started, however, there were concerns among the organizers that Friday’s rainy conditions may keep people at home.
“We were really, really concerned early on,” Davis said. “The rain isn’t conducive for people to come out. The weather dried up, and it looks like we’re going to have a dry night, so it’s going to be good.”
By 6 p.m., the rain had stopped, and the Rev. Vincent Dial opened the ceremony with the traditional Call of the Drums. At 6:30 p.m., on the main stage — near the intersection of West Main and Buffalo streets — The Billy Crawford Band began the evening’s entertainment lineup and, by 7 p.m., the streets began to fill with families and individuals looking to see what this year’s festival had to offer.
“When it dried up, people started coming, and it looks like vendors are getting a little business,” Davis said.
In addition to musical acts on the main stage, the festival offered attendees several options for entertainment. For the younger crowd, a musical stage for young adults was set up near the intersection of East Market and North Roan streets. The young adult stage featured performances by DJ Sterl the Pearl before the featured event, the 106 Park Style Rap Battle, took place at 7:45;
Along with music, festival-goers had a chance to sit and listen to stories, as well. At the East Tennessee State University Storytelling Stage in Majestic Park, members of the school’s storytelling program spun yarns between 4 and 7 p.m. for anyone who cared to listen;
And, as has become customary with the event, New Orleans-based Shaka Zulu, Stiltwalker and his drum and dance troupe made rounds through downtown, making occasional stops to perform for onlookers.
“He has been with us since the beginning,” Davis said.
In addition to street entertainment, for the fourth year, the region’s running enthusiasts were treated to the Unity Race 5K Run/Walk. The race began behind the main stage and circled through the historic Tree Streets neighborhood while African drum music was provided along the way.
Though Friday offered those in attendance with an array of activities, Saturday promises more. At 10 a.m., the festival’s annual parade will begin where the event itself did at Carver Park. The beginning of the parade also marks the beginning of the festival’s annual car show, which will last until 5 p.m.
For Davis, the inclusion of a variety of activity and entertainment goes to the core of what the festival is all about — unity.
“We have all kinds of bands, all kinds of music, (and) all kinds of food,” Davis said. “We try to really stress unity and diversity.
“We just really want to stress that we’re all in this together.”
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