Saturday marked the end of another successful Umoja Festival in Johnson City. It was the 15th year the event has been held to celebrate Umoja, a Swahili word for unity.
This popular annual festival continues to draw large crowds to downtown. More than 30,000 were expected to take part in this year’s event.
The festival features dancing, a parade, poetry readings and a healthy helping of African-American culture. Organizers say the theme of the event centers around unity and ethnic diversity.
The Johnson City festival is organized by Umoja Arts & Cultural Inc., which is made up of 23 board members. The group’s stated mission is “to bridge and unify diverse cultures through education and artistic presentations of art, culture and heritage.”
The origins of Umoja celebrations date back to Aug. 8, 1863, when Andrew Johnson freed his slaves in Greeneville. This date was marked as Emancipation Day for East Tennessee freedmen and was celebrated with picnics and music.
Then Gov. Phil Bredesen signed legislation into law in 2007 proclaiming Aug. 8 as “Emancipation Day” in Tennessee, saying the date was meant to “… honor and recognize the celebration of the action of Andrew Johnson, 17th president of the United States and then military governor of Tennessee, in freeing his personal slaves on August 8, 1863, and the significance of emancipation in the history of Tennessee.”
Johnson City began celebrating Unity Day in 1978. Following a brief hiatus, the festival was revived in 1997.
The festival’s official website (Umojajc.org) says the event is a “time when people from all walks of life can gather and learn a little bit more about others’ traditions and customs; a time to learn about different music, food, dance, dress and experiences.”
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