The 2023 West Virginia Black Heritage Festival
The West Virginia Black Heritage Festival has a remarkable origin story. It traces its roots back to a spring meeting in 1990 initiated by the Kelly Miller Alumni Association, where discussions about fundraising ideas eventually blossomed into what is now recognized as the West Virginia Black Heritage Festival. This celebration emerged from humble beginnings, stemming from commemorations held by Clarksburg's African-American community to honor the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln. The inaugural event, named the "Emancipation Proclamation Celebration," took place on September 22, 1990, on E.B. Saunders Way (formerly Water Street) in Clarksburg, WV. The event featured the reading of the Proclamation, and city officials were in attendance.
The early success of the weekend celebration, which surpassed attendance expectations, led to its rapid growth. Local social clubs and community organizations contributed as vendors during the festival's initial years. By 1995, the Emancipation Proclamation Celebration had evolved into the West Virginia Black Heritage Festival due to its increasing popularity and expanding scope. The festival transitioned to a more organized structure, forming a board of directors with dedicated individuals from the local African-American community. Notable figures among the original board members included Allen Lee, Gladys Griffin, Grace Nunn, Felicia Wilkinson, Barbara Smith, Marie McCoy, George and Eleanor Hilson, Victorian Louistall Monroe, Raymond Smith, Sara Daugherty, Betty Wilson, and Richard Albert.
In 2001, the festival underwent another name change as it officially became the West Virginia Black Heritage Festival and subsequently gained nonprofit status under section 501(c)(3) in 2003.
Over the years, the festival has flourished, evolving from hosting around ten to twelve vendors to accommodating approximately 50 vendors today. It has also attracted nationally recognized entertainment, including acts like Atlantic Starr, Kurtis Blow, Lakeside, The Drifters, The Marcels, The Delfonics, The Intruders, the Dunbar Jazz Ensemble, and even African-American Miss America Kimberly Aiken.
Beyond its entertainment value, the festival has embraced an important educational and community-oriented mission. With the intention of inspiring and guiding African American youth, the festival awards scholarships and recognizes outstanding young individuals as king and queen each year. This initiative is aimed at showcasing positive options and encouraging thoughtful decision-making among the younger generation. Additionally, the festival has extended its impact through participation in programs like the Kelly Miller Enrichment Program, a valuable after-school offering available to youth throughout Harrison County.
One of the festival's staunch supporters, Jim Griffin, believes in the transformative power of the event. Griffin views the festival as a means of educating the community about the substantial contributions African Americans have made to West Virginia and the nation at large. He emphasizes that the festival not only celebrates heritage but also promotes a sense of belonging and pride.
Two other key figures, Dorian and Sherri James, have dedicated over two decades to the festival's success. Dorian serves as vice chairman on the board of directors, while Sherri leads the fundraising committee. They both recognize the festival's importance in counteracting negative influences faced by today's youth. Through scholarships, recognition of outstanding individuals, and year-round community services, the festival has a continuous and far-reaching impact.
While the West Virginia Black Heritage Festival remains an annual weekend celebration, its influence resonates throughout the year. The festival's association, Black Heritage Festival, Inc., maintains an active presence in the community, providing services such as leadership development, health screenings, history education, lifestyle improvement, and spiritual growth. These endeavors, along with partnerships with local institutions, continue to uplift the community and offer much-needed support.
The festival's legacy lives on through events like the annual golf tournament, which raises funds for deserving students across the state seeking higher education. Additionally, financial literacy workshops, seminars on starting and owning a business, and various community programs demonstrate the festival's commitment to empowerment and growth.
With the Kelly Miller Community Center serving as a hub for diverse activities, including fitness facilities, chess clubs, book clubs, martial arts schools, and more, the festival's impact extends well beyond its designated weekend, creating a lasting and positive influence on the community it serves.