Blues performer Thornetta Davis | Kennette Lamar
As it approached 20 years as a cultural institution in 1983, the Afro-American Museum of Detroit created and carried out a weekend public festival – and Motor City area political officials helped to make it happen.
The first African World Festival theme was “The African World is One” and was celebrated at Detroit’s Hart Plaza. At that time, Detroit was America’s largest Black-majority city.
Gregory Hicks, who had previously worked as a Detroit City Council staffer, served as the first festival manager and helped to ensure that the effort stayed on time and on task. He recalls that the festival had nearly 300 volunteers.
“The African World Festival was envisioned as really a people’s open festival, and it was designed to showcase the complete African diaspora,” Hicks told the Advance.
If you go
The 40th anniversary celebration for the African World Festival takes place from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday through Sunday. It will be held at Hart Plaza, the city’s public square named after Michigan U.S. Sen. Philip Hart, a Democrat who served on Capitol Hill during the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
Attendance at the festival is free all weekend for museum members, and memberships must be purchased in advance. The day pass for non-members is $15 for ages 13 and above, $10 for college students and seniors, and free for those younger than 13.
The museum was founded in 1965 by Charles H. Wright, a Black physician. The 1983 festival lineup included noted University of Michigan Black History professor Harold Cruse, cultural icon and former state House member Ed Vaughn and music legends Ortheia Barnes, Marcus Belgrave and Taj Mahal.
Shahida Mausi, a cultural and entertainment leader in Detroit, played an important part in solidifying the support of Detroit’s first African American mayor, Coleman A. Young. Kano Audley Smith also played a major role in the festival in 1983.
“We want to provide some uniquely Black experiences for the community – Black, white, red, yellow, you name it,” Smith, the Afro-American Museum of Detroit’s executive director, told the Detroit Free Press in 1983. “We want to provide such a diversity that people will come away just totally in awe of what they know now of the heritage and diversity of the African world and what they understand of unities and linkages.”
The Detroit Historical Society has footage from the first festival.
Longtime museum employee Kevin Davidson has been involved in the festival planning and presentation since 1983. He assisted Carl Owens in the development of the poster art. Davidson told the Advance that the city of Detroit’s collaboration with the museum was “critical.”
“You had Dr. Wright’s vision to see this museum grow and become monumental in the city of Detroit and could raise the funds and maintain what we had on the Boulevard [the museum’s first site],” Davidson said. “But in terms of taking that leap building a brand new facility, [Dr. Wright] had the drive but not necessarily the resources to do it.”
Through a partnership with the city of Detroit, the museum constructed new buildings in 1985 and 1997. Vaughn served in the Michigan House Representatives and was an appointee to Young in 1983.
“If our people could see the correlations between African people here and there, the songs and the dances, if our young people could capture that sense of pride, I’d see Detroit being a much better place for everyone,” said Vaughn in 1983.
The UAW, Michigan Consolidated, General Motors, Chrysler, Ford and Anheuser-Busch provided financial and in-kind contributions to help fund the festival.
In 1999, the museum was named after Wright.
“For over half a century, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History has dedicated itself to exploring and celebrating the rich cultural legacy of African Americans,” said Wright Museum President and CEO Neil Barclay. “To that end, The Wright is proud and excited to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the African World Festival – one of the largest celebrations of that legacy.”
This year, blues performer Thornetta Davis, visual artist Donald Calloway and R&B legend George Clinton are among the headliners.
The festival is expected to attract more than 25,000 visitors over the three days. The Ford Fund is the lead sponsor of the event.
“We can say, without a doubt, that there is definitely something for everyone,” said Njia Kai, the festival’s organizer.
Forty years ago, civil rights activist Edith Lee-Payne of Detroit attended the 1983 festival. Twenty years before, she was present during the June 1963 Detroit “Walk to Freedom” march and rally and the August 1963 “March on Washington” where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his seminal “I Have a Dream Speech.”
“There were people of all walks of life. [The 1983 African World Festival] helped to reinforce the civil rights movement,” said Lee-Payne.
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