Lakeland Black History Festival Celebrates Local Heritage
by James Coulter
We all know about Martin Luther King, Jr., the famous humanitarian who helped lead the civil rights movement. But do you know about the black inventor who created the red stop light? Or the black explorer who first reached the North Pole? Or the black politicans who became the first black woman to run for president?
If you attended the annual black history event in Lakeland on Saturday, you probably learned that Garrett Morgan invented the traffic light, Matthew Henson attended the first expedition to the North Pole, and Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman to run for president.
Local residents, both young and old, had the opportunity to learn about and celebrate black history through music, entertainment, and education during the annual Black History Festival at Jackson Park in Lakeland on Saturday.
Helping teach children about black history that day was the Paul A. Diggs Neighborhood Association. Their booth showcased several dozen flash cards detailing the biography of famous black historical figures. After reading the cards, children were then questioned about what they read, and then rewarded with either candy or school supplies.
Lorenzo Robinson, a representative from the neighborhood association, has been attending the local event for the past two years. This year he saw more than 30 children and 20 adults arrive at their booth eager to learn about black history, as well as be rewarded for learning about it, he said.
“I think that the children…they didn’t know about some of these people,” he said. “They mainly know about Martin Luther King, but they didn’t know about the others…[So] we are happy that they are being exposed to other civil rights leaders and entrepreneurs and inventors.”
Robinson has been helping out his local community through his organization, which runs Save Our Children, a program that addresses issues facing local children. He loves being able to attend events such as this to help reach out to children as well as other community members.
“In addition to seeing people I have not seen for four to five years, we have seen a whole new generation coming through who want to learn and want to pick up information that we have,” he said.
The Black History Festival has been hosted in Lakeland for more than 30 years. This year marks the second time their event was hosted outdoors in the park, as they had previously been hosted indoors within the Bush-Coleman Building next door, explained Natalie Galleon, Lakeland recreational supervisor.
Galleon was inspired to move the annual event outside after visiting several other cities and noticing that their black history events were all hosted outdoors. Also, their local event had since outgrown their indoor space, thus requiring them to expand outdoors, she said.
This year proved to be much bigger and better than last year, with more than 42 vendors arriving to offer food, clothing, and other wares from local residents and businesses. Providing entertainment that day were several dance, musical, and poetry acts, as well as a live DJ playing music during intervals.
“We had a DJ playing music all the time rather than wait for entertainment to get on stage,” Galleon said. “He came in and he has played music the entire time. He pulled people from the community with the music going on.”
Aside from the lovely weather that evening, the event managed to draw in many attendees from the local community. Each and every year sees the event become bigger and better, and they hope to continue expanding into the future, Galleon said.
Next year, they hope to draw in more sponsors for the event, which would better allow them to likewise draw in more vendors for a lesser cost, and hopefully for free, she said.
“You enhance everything every year,” she said. “You communicate with the community, you find out what they want, you do surveys to find out what they want, and you implement those things.”
Attending this year were several local organizations, including the Paul A. Diggs Neighborhood Association, Girl Scouts, and NAACP.
Mary Lewis, the first vice president for the NAACP Lakeland Branch, has been with her organization for the past three years, and has been attending this event for the past two. She understands that her organization is vital to promoting equality and unity, and thus seeks opportunities such as this to attract new members, she said.
Not only is the event great for her own organization and its mission, but also for the community at large, as it offers them the opportunity to learn more about and better appreciate their local history and heritage, she said.
“We need events like this in our community to help educate our citizens,” she said. “They help promote growth in our community, as well as unity. So hopefully this festival sustains from now until the end of the world.”