African American Festival draws thousands, despite heat
City's long-standing tradition is largest of its kind on East Coast
Six-year-old Dot Stackhouse, of Fort Washington, finds shade near the main stage by attaching an umbrella to his cap at the African-American Festival. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / July 7, 2012)
The Bradleys, of Randallstown, made the free festival, in its 36th year, a family event. Sandra Bradley, 12, who was recently crowed Miss Exquisite Pre-Teen in a Randallstown-based pageant, was set to participate in a fashion show, and the children's mother, Stephanie Bradley, said she enjoyed the way the event unites so many people.
"We can get together and have fun," Stephanie Bradley said.
The two-day festival, held in the parking lots between M&T Bank Stadium and Camden Yards, historically draws about 500,000 people. Organizers said the heat kept the turnout smaller than usual during the day, but by Saturday night the crowd had reached 250,000.
Sprinklers were set up to help keep the revelers cool, and vendors hawked bottles of water for $1.
The festival features musical performances, cultural food and exhibits, more than 150 vendors, contests, health screenings, and financial empowerment activities. Specifically for children, the event offers crafts, youth performances, inflatable obstacle courses and a rock-climbing wall.
Sunday's headliners include Big Daddy Kane, MC Lyte and Salt-N-Pepa. On Saturday's stage, among the 20 acts which began performing around noon were Chante Moore, Elle Varner and Musiq Soulchild.
Corey Larkins, 20, of Baltimore's St. Joseph's neighborhood said he has avoided the festival in the past because of the heat, but this year he wanted to come and see Varner perform. He said the free event is a chance for the city to give back to its residents.
"I love it; I know where my tax dollars are going to," Larkins said.
In recent years, the event — the largest African-American festival on the East Coast — has been in transition. When Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was elected, the festival faced numerous challenges, said Ian T. Brennan, press secretary for the mayor.
Brennan said to revive the event and make it fiscally sustainable, Rawlings-Blake appointed a new advisory board when she took office, and the city selected greiBO Entertainment to run the event, beginning last year.
"When Mayor Rawlings-Blake took office, the city's oldest and largest African-American cultural event was found in disarray," Brennan said in a statement. "GreiBO did a wonderful job running last year's festival, which was a great success that attracted hundreds of thousands of families from as far as North Carolina and New York to downtown Baltimore, boosting our local economy while ensuring that all vendors were compensated for services rendered."
As an example of the event's fame, Brennan said Jet magazine listed the festival among its top five summer destinations.
The festival had been produced from 2001 to 2010 by LaRian Finney of Visionary Marketing Group, but the city changed companies after allegations of mismanagement surfaced. Finney's attorney has attributed the issues to misunderstandings with a few of the hundreds of vendors involved with the festival during the time that Finney was in charge.
A Baltimore circuit judge awarded $103,000 to three vendors who weren't paid after the 2010 event.
The city agreed to pay $300,000 toward the cost of this year's festival, according to a city Board of Estimates document. Overall, the event costs more than $1 million to put on.
Brennan said the bulk of the cost to put on the festival is paid by the event sponsors and vendor partnerships. The city's cash goes toward event marketing, drawing national acts and providing infrastructure such as stages, generators, lighting and video screens.
The city's financial contribution to the African American Festival is similar to the city's support for other free cultural events, such as Artscape, the Independence Day celebration and the city's New Year's Eve Spectacular, Brennan said.
The mayor's office could not immediately provide information on how much the city contributed to the other events or how much it paid to the African American Festival in the last several years.
The African American Festival is one of a half-dozen cultural festivals the city will host this year. The Latino Fest and St. Nicholas Greek Folk Festival were held in June, and the Caribbean Carnival Festival, Ukrainian Festival and Russian Festival are scheduled for later this year.
Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, said Baltimore has a long history of honoring ethnic traditions, which he said is a way to galvanize the community.
"I think Baltimore is rich in its cultural offerings," Gilmore said. "We were one of the country's largest of ports of entry for immigrants, second next to Ellis Island, so we have been built on a foundation of ethnic communities and ethnic neighborhoods."
Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Scharper contributed to this article.