Healing History’s Wounds

The Black Cultural Festival is evidence of the communal growth and beauty Eugene desires to achieve

By Irene Rasheed

You may not have heard of the Black Cultural Festival. It’s a festival unique to the Pacific Northwest. Now in its second year, the Black Cultural Festival promises to be an event nearly unrivaled in Eugene’s festival culture. This unique event was created to provide the local Black community with a place of belonging and opportunities to bridge access gaps, wrapped up in exciting festival attractions.

The list of the Black Cultural Festival’s offerings is appealing and varied, including aerial silks with Bounce Gymnastics, an outdoor Museum Without Walls sponsored in part by the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, an Instrument Petting Zoo with the Eugene Symphony, free yoga and meditation classes, art workshops led by professional artists, a six-person African drum and dance troupe from Ghana, Paddling 101 lessons and guided river tours with Willamette Riverkeeper, local Black artisans, soul food, chess, and so much more!

However, more than what ’joyments can be found at this year’s Black Cultural Festival, we should focus on the significance of the event, and how it is evidence of the communal growth and beauty Eugene desires to achieve. To understand this festival as more than a chance to be entertained, we must look at founder Talicia Brown-Crowell’s reason for creating it.

Daring To Be Black in Oregon

When Oregon was admitted to the Union, it was the only state with a Black exclusion law. Interestingly, Oregon was anti-slavery — but it was also anti-Black. The first of our state’s exclusion laws banned slavery, but also banned freed Black people from remaining within the state. The idea was that Oregon was removing a “troublesome class,” which was the cause of “evil” in other parts of the country. Doubling down on its collective racism, in 1869 Oregon rescinded its ratification of the 14th Amendment. 

Just 80 years ago, Oregon had a higher per capita ratio of KKK members than any other state. This means, if you are this author’s age, your grandparents grew up in that era; your parents may have been raised by persons with those mindsets. You may have been one of the first to peek outside of the cloud of racism. Your children may be the first generation raised with overarching inclusive attitudes toward race.

Eugene’s white population forged a troubled history with the local Black community. Being Black in our city was effectively illegal for several generations. The police kept a book with photos of Black men who dared to stay in the city more than a week, crosses were burned, Black bodies were violently segregated.

“The land called Alton Baker Park in 2022 is where the Black community in Eugene started. It was referred to as ‘across the bridge’ when Eugene was a sundown town. At the end of the work day, the Black employees had to be back across the river by sundown, so as not to be caught in the city after dark. Alton Baker Park is where they resided,” says festival advisor Kokayi Nosakhere. The Black community in Eugene will be congregating at Alton Baker Park in August — not because we are forced to be there, but because we choose to be for the Black Cultural Festival in honor of those who had no choice.

A Lost Sense of Self, Safety and Community

Generations of abuse and violence damaged something in the souls of many Black people in Eugene. Black people learned to ignore each other. They lost the sense of community most of the American Black population has. There seems to be an understanding that it is not safe to be grouped, it is not desired. 

If you are not Black, you cannot understand what it means to see another Black person on the street, in a restaurant, at school, or at a store — and once your eyes meet, they quickly turn away. In our culture, we always acknowledge each other. We let each other know, you have been seen and I am here, too. It’s a sign of love and understanding amongst our people.

… but not in Eugene. 

Here, it almost seems much of the Black population has been taught that it is dangerous to even acknowledge another Black person is nearby. To get the local Black community together en masse is a near impossible feat. And yet, that is exactly what the Black Cultural Festival aims to do. It aims to gather our local Black population and encourage them to be a community and heal together.

The theme of this year’s festival is “Our Mental Health Matters.” In addition to the obvious festival offerings, there are practical connections to services that support the well-being of the local Black populace. We are happy to see allies within the local community showing their support. While the festival is for persons of Afro-descent, our close friends and families, we welcome ally support through donations and volunteering.

Irene Rasheed is a consultant and activist of Gullah Geechee descent, author of Afro-centric K-12 history curriculums, a mother and wife. She is also the sponsorship coordinator for the Black Cultural Festival. The festival would like to give a special thanks to its sponsors and partners. The festival is 1 pm to 6 pm Saturday, Aug. 20 at the Alton Baker Park Picnic Shelters. Tickets are FREE for Elders 70+ and families with children of Afro-descent. Children and their families are provided meals. Ticket donations are $20, $30 after August 6 and onsite.  Find out more at BlackCulturalFestival.com.