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Spirit of Umoja founder "will be with us" during this year's festival

Jonathan Roberts • Sep 9, 2019 at 12:00 AM

In 1978, Ralph Davis, along with other members of the NAACP, Concerned Citizens Group, Carver Recreation and other community members started an annual Unity Picnic — now known as the Umoja Festival.

This year will be the first without him.

“It’s going to be really different, and it already is different because my husband and I are learning (how to plan the festival),” said organizer Angelita Bradley. “Ralph was teaching us, and now he’s gone, so we’re doing the best we can.

“This year, his spirit will be with us no matter what,” she said.

Davis, who passed away in Memphis on July 7, will be honored at the festival on Saturday night, though Bradley and other organizers haven’t figured out specifics yet.

“Ralph Davis was our leader — he was our president,” said Bradley.

Still, Davis’ memory will undoubtedly live on through the Umoja Festival, which is Johnson City’s longest running festival, and has been held annually since 1997. That alone makes planning the figurative father of Johnson City’s festival culture hard to live up to, but Bradley isn’t concerned.

“We live up to it by trying to provide good music, good entertainment, activities for the children and vendors — just trying to bring people together,” she said.

The community of Umoja — a Swahili word for “unity” — is already beginning ahead of the festival’s dates this weekend. Last week, the Johnson City Brewing Company released a special Umoja beer — made with a mango puree and coriander.

“The reason we started this place was to have a place of community,” said Johnson City Brewing Company founder Eric Latham. “Really, it was a collaboration between Johnson City Brewing, Umoja and Suzie Kelly, the artist.

“It’s combining all the things we love: Craft beer, community and local art,” he added.

The 2019 festival gets underway on Sept. 13 at 6 p.m. with the opening ceremony. Events will continue Saturday, with a parade at 10 a.m. and music running all day. For a full list of events and a schedule, visit www.umojajc.org. 

Also making appearances will be the first African-American to be crowned Miss Tennessee, Brianna Mason, and a performance from R&B group H-Town.

“A lot of people think this is just for African-Americans, but it’s a festival for everybody,” Bradley said.

Events to watch: 

Friday, Sept. 13

6 p.m.: Opening Ceremony, appearance from Miss Tennessee Brianna Mason

9 p.m.: Purple Masquerade Prince Tribute

Saturday, Sept. 14

10 a.m.: Parade (leaving from Carver Recreation Facility)

4 p.m.: Youth Stage Talent Showcase

5 p.m.: African Fashion Show

9 p.m.: H-Town  

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