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Local Blacks Honored at Juneteenth Celebration

By Yolanda Putman

A local nonprofit organization’s dream for its second Juneteenth celebration rose to reality this month when a sold out crowd hit the Chattanooga Theatre Centre for the Chattanooga Festival of Black Arts & Ideas’ RBG (Red Black and Green) Ball and its 1st Inaugural Black Arts Awards.

“We are making history here tonight,” said Donna Elle Harrison, a local radio personality and director of Cultural Tourism for the Chattanooga Tourism Co.  

Harrison hosted the event with TV Channel 9’s “Good Morning Chattanooga” co-anchor Greg Funderberg. 

Ric Morris, founder of the black arts organization, recognized local professionals like Neutral Ground restaurant owner and award-winning cuisinier Chef Kenyatta Ashford who prepared the meal especially for the celebration, PAN-CAKE Bakery owner Renita Johnson who made African flag-topped red velvet cupcakes for dessert, and Tinita Coulter who designed dresses for three historical African princesses presented at the ball. Morris also recognized local black firefighters who served as waiters.

The RBG Ball and Black Arts Awards marked the first in a month-long schedule of events recognizing Juneteenth, the oldest celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. The federal holiday is observed on June 19, the date in 1865 when slaves in Galvaston, Texas learned they were free.

A spirit of gratitude and pride filled the theater as black people and some supportive whites stepped in the theater to celebrate African American culture and achievement.

Morris sold 101 tickets to mark the 101st Anniversary of the Black Wall Street Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

After a dinner–including tasty cornbread and spread, flavorful beans and fish, or beans and chicken–the Knoxville-based drum group, Indigenous Vibes, set the atmosphere with  African drum beats and bells mixed with high pitched ululating and high stepping dancers.

The group paraded down a red, black and green carpet in the center of the dining area and made space for the procession of three historical African princesses. 

The Black Arts Awards honored local artists in visual arts, music, dance, literature, theater and film.

Charlie Newton, founder of a free art school called SPLASH, received the visual arts award. He said he was grateful for the honor and noted that blacks throughout history don’t get the recognition they deserve.

“As our art goes, so does the world, but a lot of times we don’t get credit for any of it,” he said. “So it is very important that we celebrate our value and who we are.”

The festival recognized internationally known musician and retired University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) Professor Roland Carter for his work in music. Carter told the audience how he became head of the music department at UTC, a school that would not allow him to enroll in the 1960s. He was especially grateful for the recognition from the festival at this point in his life. He turned 80 in May. 

“I am without words,” Carter said after his former student and local principal LaFrederick Thirkill announced him to receive the award. 

Other artists honored included Writer, Producer and Creator Charles Patterson for theater, D. Williams Dance Academy founder Devante Williams for dance, and  Rhyme N Chatt President Marsha Mills for literature.

Sheila Wofford, a local director, writer, producer and actress, won the award for film. Several people cheered and yelled words of encouragement as she shared her story.

“Someone who was my size who looked like me got supporting roles,” she said.

Wofford worked in Atlanta and New York, but still had a hard time getting the roles she wanted. She noted that she too could play a leading lady. 

So when no one gave her an opportunity, she created her own film company in 2014 and began creating opportunities for herself and others.

 “I can be the sexy Villain,” she said.

“Come on,” yelled someone from the audience in agreement. Other people cheered and applauded.

“I can be the doctor,” she said.  “I can be a lawyer.”

For more events to celebrate Juneteenth, visit https://www.blackartsandideasfest.com/. 

The Unity Group is also hosting Juneteenth events. For more information, go to https://www.facebook.com/unitygroupofchattanooga/.

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