Juneteenth Festival For All
Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas spreads history, culture, art, education and more
Almost a quarter century before President Joe Biden signed a bill designating Juneteenth a federal holiday, Pape “Pap” Ndiaye kicked off the inaugural Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas. The owner of House of Africa has long been ahead of the curve when it comes to spreading history and culture.
“When we started Juneteenth here in Charlotte, people were calling us every five minutes asking, ‘What is Juneteenth?’” said Ndiaye, who was born and raised in Senegal. “That is why we are so happy that Juneteenth is now a national holiday and that everyone knows now what Juneteenth is. And I believe Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas gave birth to a whole lot of Juneteenth festivals in this country.”
Before Ndiaye arrived in Charlotte in the mid-1990s, he had already made his mark on this country as a purveyor of art in New York City. Ndiaye opened a shop called House of Africa in Manhattan where he sold African art. Next came the second iteration of his NYC venture, Charlotte’s House of Africa, which has been a staple of Plaza Midwood for decades.
House of Africa is also home of the 2022 Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary June 16-19.
The gallery has long provided Ndiaye an opportunity to share the history and culture of the second-largest continent with people in the U.S. This determination to educate people is what led him to launch a festival marking the date – June 19, 1865 – when enslaved Black people in Texas learned, belatedly, of their earlier emancipation from slavery.
The level of excitement about, and awareness of, Juneteenth barely existed in the community before the festival debuted in 1997.
Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas, said Sandra McMullen, a consultant assisting with the festival, “has contributed to the attention that Juneteenth has gotten, which resulted in the national holiday (in 2021). I really feel that way.”
Added Ndiaye: “We’re also using Juneteenth as a tool to educate about the rich culture of Africa and the powerful heritage” of his homeland.
When the festival debuted in 1997, the two-day event attracted 2,000 people. Within seven years, said Ndiaye, “it got so big we had to move it to Independence Park.” While it has since returned to the Thomas and Commonwealth avenue section of Plaza-Midwood, it has continued to grow, with more than 20,000 people attending in 2020.
“The city of Charlotte has just embraced the festival,” noted McMullen.
An event of this magnitude is not possible without a great deal of community involvement. In addition to being a festival, Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas is also a nonprofit organization. Its board is led by Chair Shirley Fulton, a community leader and trailblazing, retired North Carolina Superior Court judge.
“My goal is to grow Juneteenth and make it the biggest and best celebration in the country,” said Fulton. “We’re already the largest in the Southeast.”
Charlotte Metro Credit Union and First Care Medical Clinic – among the festival’s first sponsors in 1997 – join Foundation For The Carolinas and 20 other companies and organizations as sponsors of the 2022 event.
Each year’s festival features a changing lineup, with a diversity of offerings, from a talent show, drum circles, a fashion show, a community march, seminars, health screenings, storytelling and more. Live performances of R&B, jazz, reggae and gospel music are a regular part of the festival, featuring a mix of national recording artists and local/regional performers, such as Michael Boykin & The Mighty Voices, Demarcus Green, A Sign of the Times, Shae Movement and Gary Mumford & Friends.
Yvonne Dixon, director of health equity with Novant Health – one of the festival’s major sponsors – first met Ndiaye in 2001 and has attended the festival every year.
“I’m always looking for ways for Novant Health to become more engaged in community activities,” which is why she “introduced the concept of sponsoring the festival to Novant Health in 2013.”
In 2022, Novant Health’s mobile community cruiser will be on hand to provide health screenings.
“The screenings (including blood pressure and weight checks) are all free,” said Shannel Newton, co-leader of the Black/African American Business Resource Group, which will be onsite to assist. “We do full blood work, so that basically allows you to know your numbers. We give you access to those numbers and results and a counseling session with a Novant doctor or nurse.”
West Charlotte resident Makheru Bradley has been a regular at the festival since the beginning, speaking about history and current events. The festival’s unofficial historian, Bradley has been an activist since the 1970s, following the civil rights movement.
“I was being trained by former SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) members,” said Bradley. “One thing they emphasized was studying history beyond the classroom. I became aware of Juneteenth in the 1970s, but the people I was working with didn’t celebrate it. Our focus was more on demonstrations than celebrations.”
The first Juneteenth celebration occurred in Texas on the first anniversary – June 19, 1866. In the decades to come – as people migrated to other parts of the country – Juneteenth commemorations spread, often featuring music, barbecues, prayer services and other activities. In 1979, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday. While other states followed, it wasn’t until June 17, 2021, that it was recognized federally.
“When Pap came 25 years ago and said, ‘Why isn’t Juneteenth being celebrated in Charlotte and the Carolinas,’ nobody had an answer for him, so he started it,” said Bradley. “He asked me to speak on the subject from a historical perspective every year. That led me into being the historian.”
Like others closely connected to the Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas, the annual celebration allows Bradley to not only engage and elevate but also educate and enlighten: “The impact the festival has had has given me an opportunity to transfer my knowledge to younger generations.”
For more information on Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas, visit juneteenthofthecarolinas.com/.
Constance Brossa is an independent writer and editor based in Charlotte, North Carolina, who also owns a marketing agency focused on brand storytelling.