It’s festival time again in downtown Johnson City. Tonight, Main Street and the surrounding area will be a flurry of activities as the 15th annual Umoja Festival starts setting up.
The free event takes place Friday and Saturday and is expected to bring 30,000 people downtown for dancing and drumming, live music and basketball, films and storytelling, kids’ activities, a 5K race, a cornhole tournament, food vendors and much more.
“We think it’s a remarkable achievement,” Umoja chairman Ralph Davis said. “We’re pleased to be able to keep it going and kind of reach a landmark anniversary, and we’re so glad the public and community have supported us.
“We feel like we’ve traveled a good, long road. We started out as a community Saturday evening picnic at Carver Rec that grew to a few hundred people, then to Freedom Hall and several thousand people, and now we’ve moved to downtown and we’ve been blessed that size of crowd and diversity of crowd has increased.”
Umoja Arts & Cultural Inc., comprises 23 board members and puts on several events throughout the year, the biggest being the festival. They’re funded by donations from local churches, organizations, businesses, citizens and grants.
Umoja’s purpose is “to bridge and unify diverse cultures through education and artistic presentations of art, culture and heritage.” The event has gone through several venues and grown over the years, and organizers have always tried to celebrate cultural diversity and unity — “umoja” loosely translates from Swahili to mean “unity.”
The festival is well known for its colorful parade, which starts Saturday at Carver Park at 10 a.m. and goes down Main Street to finish near the Main Stage. U.S. Rep. Phil Roe will be grand marshal.
“He’s been very supportive of Umoja,” said Elmer Washington, one of the festival organizers. “We’re very glad to have him come down from Washington for our festival.”
This year’s music headliners include Shirley Murdock and Zapp Band on Friday night and Chocolate Buttermilk and Confunkshun on Saturday night. Music and other live entertainment will take place on two stages — the Main Stage near Fountain Square and a Youth/Young Adults Stage on Roan Street.
“With the Young Adults Stage, we’re really hoping we can get more young people involved,” Davis said. “We think it will work well.”
The festival has expanded its activities to include the Unity Race 5K, set for Friday night and running through the Historic Tree Streets, and the Kings of the Blacktop 3-on-3 basketball tournament on Friday and Saturday.
There’s a cornhole tournament, a film festival and storytelling on Saturday. Umoja is also well-known for its Health Fair on Saturday that offers free medical screenings, and the Saturday Children’s Carnival at Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church.
“This is a regional-type festival with a lot of different groups and people and things going on, so we encourage people to come down and see what everybody has to offer,” Davis said.