Dover’s African American Festival open to all

Sankofa drummer Zachary Brown keeps the beat during the African American Festival at Legislative Mall last year. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Watching the “Positively Dover” African American Festival grow from a small citywide gathering in 1991 to the anticipated statewide event that it has become has been much like watching a young child sprout up right in front of Reuben Salter’s eyes.

The free African American Festival will mark its 29th year on Saturday at Legislative Mall from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m., just one year away from celebrating its milestone three-decades-old birthday.

The festival, which was founded in 1991 by Mr. Salters, a former Dover City Councilman, and former state Rep. Donald Blakey, is organized and sponsored by the Dover-based Inner City Cultural League.

“It hasn’t been easy,” said Mr. Salters, founder of the Inner City Cultural League, of keeping up with the festival. “I just had my 90th birthday and it seems like the older I get, the harder it is to keep moving sometimes, but the African American Festival is still a joy, a pleasure and an honor to be able to celebrate.

Yeshiyah B. Israel helps a customer at her African Apparel Boutique stand last year.

“This is really an event to honor the Emancipation Proclamation, and June 19th is celebrated as Juneteeth Day (the emancipation of enslaved African Americans throughout the former Confederate States of America) all over the country, and we just want to bring the people together in peace and harmony and just enjoy a fun day where we can all get together.”

The daylong celebration of African culture in Delaware’s capital city includes a wide array of food and craft vendors, dancing, drumming and music.

The “Positively Dover” African American Festival officially kicks off with the Grand Procession as event organizers, state and local dignitaries and the Sankofa Drummers and Dancers parade around the grounds — many wearing traditional African garb — at Legislative Mall at 11 a.m.

“I look forward to seeing the people leisurely and casually talking with their neighbors and having fun,” Mr. Salters said. “I also enjoy seeing the exuberance of the young people in the crowd.

“Everyone comes out and has a good time. It’s a great way to share our heritage and culture with one another and to educate the youth about where they came from.”

There will be a plethora of talent taking to the main stage, which will be set up directly across the street from Legislative Hall.

This year’s performers include the Sankofa African Dance Company, Keepers of the Flame, Philadelphia Freedom Gospel Choir, Comfort Zone Rhythm and Blues Band, Sankofa Steel Band, Trinidad and Tobago Steel Orchestra, while Greg Hill’s Delphonic Review will be the headlining act.

Mr. Salters did hint that he and other organizers might be ready to cater to its crowd with a “younger sound” at next year’s festival.

Sankofa dancer Madison Robinson ties a bow on her head last year.

“It always boils down to getting people who are solid, professional,” he said. “We’re thinking about making next year’s entertainment a little more up-to-date. We’ve kind of been catering to the old folks in recent years. It might be time for some new voices.”

While the bands provide the rhythm and beat for the day’s festivities, the celebration runs much deeper than that.

There is also the traditional African Libation ceremony, a blessing performed by Dr. Joe Amoako from Delaware State University. He said that libation is a ritual of heritage, a drink offering to honor and please God, the lesser divinities, sacred ancestors, humans present and not present, as well as the environment.

“This festival has been going on for more than 20 years,” Dr. Amoako said. “It brings people of African descent together and other people.

“When we get here, we get to enjoy food of African descent, dances and a lot of music being played, so it is kind of bringing a lot of African descendants together here and helping them to enjoy their heritage.”

The festival offers the opportunity for visitors to explore the African and African-American culture through vendor exhibits and entertainment in an atmosphere reflecting modern-day African outdoors marketplaces.

David Anderson, a Dover city councilman who represents the 4th District, always looks forward to the arrival of the festival each summer.

“I believe the event has become so successful because it is inclusive by welcoming the entire community, regardless of ethnicity,” Councilman Anderson said. “It celebrates the African-American heritage, food, music, art and dance and values family. It is just plain fun and a safe place for families. It is one of the three premier events of our city.”

The year’s African American celebration will feature around 100 vendors, many of whom will be selling African-oriented products, clothes and art. Others will provide information regarding their businesses, including talking about health issues, offering massages and many other things.

Plus, there will be around 30 food vendors on hand, featuring a diverse menu of all different types of food, as well as games and activities for the children to enjoy.

“This is a festival that is for everybody – all ethnicities,” Mr. Salters said. “It’s just a great time to be together and share in humanity and get together in the expectations of God.”

Camille Combs, of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, attended last year’s African American Festival and watched two of her young daughters participate with the Sankofa Dancers.

Sankofa Dancers march during the procession last year.

“It’s awesome and wonderful,” Ms. Combs said. “It’s very important for those of us gathered here because we need to know our cultural background.

“I really love the dance, not just because my daughters are in it, but because it represents a very important part of culture for African Americans.”

Mr. Salters laughs and says at his age there’s no way he can keep up with the dancers anymore.

“I’m 90, I don’t keep up with them,” he said. “All I can do now is look at them as they perform, and they are amazing. I’m still interested in their development as great people, though. That means the world to me, and letting them know about their heritage, that does as well.”

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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