African-American Heritage Festival marked 20th year of diversity celebration

ALTOONA, Pa. -- In 1992, a group of people, white and black alike, decided that the marked absence of African-Americans in documented Blair County history was unacceptable. Under the leadership of the Rev. Paul Johnson, the group formed the African-American Heritage Project of Blair County. The group sought to bring about awareness and education on the role of African-Americans in the area, especially with respect to its railway history.  Group members began gathering information on what it was like for those African-Americans who came to Blair County from the South for industrial work: where did they live, what did they eat, what was it like to live here.

A mission statement soon evolved, stating that the group would discover, document, promote and preserve contributions and accomplishments as they related to African-Americans, including cultural issues such as religion, politics, education, employment and agriculture. Organization members decided one way to do so, as well as to promote the organization and celebrate the African-American heritage, was offer a festival. Thus in August 1994, the first Black Arts Festival was held at Garfield Park. His Majesty King Kigeli V, the last king in the abolished monarchy of Rwanda (1961), was the honored guest.

"This is all part of a strategic plan to promote diversity in all its forms," said Harriett Gaston, minority programs counselor at Penn State Altoona.

The following year, it was moved to Penn State Altoona and later became the African-American Heritage Festival. "This is all part of a strategic plan to promote diversity in all its forms," said Harriett Gaston, minority programs counselor at Penn State Altoona and president of the project. "It provides expressions of African-American culture and history to the community and gives local African-Americans an opportunity to interact with each other and strengthen their ties to each other and the rest of the community.”

The festival showcases local talent while also bringing professional and out-of-area acts to entertain. There are singing groups, dance troupes, and bands. There are arts and crafts, plus food and other vendors influenced by African-American culture. A newer piece of the festival is the historical display. This year will include a spread about Charlie Smith, a barber who owned his own business in downtown Altoona during the '40s, '50s and '60s. “The display is my personal emphasis. I want to make sure that aspect of history isn’t lost within the rest of the festival,” said Gaston.

Henry Hansard is co-coordinator of the festival and has been involved since its inception. He was excited to mark the 20th anniversary of the event, thrilled it has grown and become a staple event for the community. “It’s a lot of hard work, but we really have been blessed with financial support and participation from the community. The fact that people are willing to come in and make this happen each summer, I know the Lord has been blessing us.”

“My vision is to mentor the young people in the community so they always see the value of this festival,” said Gaston. “Through this we can honor our ancestors and our roots in this area. And we can also show how welcoming and open Blair County is.”

“The festival allows us to provide a platform where our African-American community can be recognized and have something to participate in that is their own,” added Hansard. “It’s also a way for us to connect with Altoona, Blair County and beyond. It’s good for the young people because it gives them a sense of ownership about their culture. It’s just a great day for people to get together and celebrate.”

The event took place on Saturday, July 27. Entertainment this year included hip-hop rapper T. Sawyer, the Ibeji Drum Ensemble, the Southside Steppers step-dance team, vocalist Deejha Maria and R&B group House of Soul. A showcase featured local talent and there were children’s activities as well as a silent auction.

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Last Updated July 30, 2013