Umoja: Unity festival kicks off downtown

Sue Guinn Legg • Updated Sep 13, 2019 at 10:40 PM

The spirit of unity spilled out over Fountain Square Friday evening as Johnson City’s annual Umoja Festival got underway.

The festivities kicked off with an opening performance by the Zulu Connection stilt walkers and Watoto dancers and drummers, who have been a major draw at the unity festival for more than three decades.

And with them came the first of the many festivalgoers who will dance in the streets as the celebration of the diversity of cultures continues through Saturday night.

Longtime Johnson City residents Michael and Deborah Little said Friday night was their first time at the festival, and it was the famed Shaka Zulu stilt walker who brought them out.

“I’m from New Orleans originally and he used to perform in the Mardi Gras parade every year. So I came to see them to help me not feel so homesick,” Deborah said.

Five-year-old Kahlaysia, who was at the festival with her grandmother Debbie Jackson and great aunt Vivivan Jackson, said she enjoyed seeing the stilt walkers, but chose not to dance with them as the slightly taller kids had done.

At close to 10 feet tall and brightly clad with tribal face paint, the stilt walkers can be a little scary from a 5-year-old’s vantage point. So Kahlaysia opted to sit out the dancing and looked forward to seeing stilt walkers again at Saturday morning’s Umoja parade.

Debbie and Vivian were glad to have her company anyway, as the trio relaxed in their camp chairs in front of the Umoja entertainment stage, enjoying an Etta James classic performed by young Patience Gardner and waiting for night’s headliner, Purple Masquerade Prince tribute band.

Joan Swingle, who retired after 50 years as a kindergarten teacher at Northside Elementary School was also out for her first Umoja festival experience.

And while she was disappointed to have missed her friend and fellow teacher Vincent Dial, a percussionist and former Northside principal who for many past years has opened the festival with a call of the drums, she had seen the Zulu Connection drummers and, as usual, a steady stream of former kindergartners who remembered her.

Also on the square, Courtney and Aaron Murphy and their 4-year-old son, Robert, were making a lap around the festival area before heading to Market Street food court to see what’s cooking. Robert had seen the stilt walkers as they walked along Main Street was set to be in the Umoja Parade line up with them on Saturday morning.

Umoja Committee member Ron Smith said while the crowd may have been a little smaller than normal early Friday night, the numbers were certain to pick up, with two nights of live music at the Fountain Square stage and Saturday morning’s Umoja Parade.

As parade chairman, Smith shared that East Tennessee State University’s basketball standout Keith “Mister” Jennings will be riding somewhere near the front as this year’s grand marshal and that several of the current sports teams from ETSU and Milligan College will also be in the lineup.

The parade will start at 10 at Carver Recreation Center and follow Watauga Avenue and Main Street to Downtown Square. Smith encouraged everyone to come out.