The nine-day, 20-event Tampa Bay Black Heritage Festival kicks off Sunday with a gospel play at Blake High School, and it's hard to believe how far the festival has come in five short years.
Dr. Samuel Wright, associate dean at the University of South Florida, is the founder of the festival, but he doesn't point to one specific source of inspiration. Wright says it was really a string of influences dating back 10 years.
Wright's vision of a special event for Tampa first crystallized when he made a trip to Africa in 1995. The next key step came when the late Charles Manly, a Tampa Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau sales manager, helped him gain a spot on the bureau's board.
Two 1997 departures also were factors: the Florida Classic football game between Bethune-Cookman College and Florida A&M University left for Orlando, and Tampa's Museum of African-American Art sold its collection to Virginia-based Black Entertainment Television.
"As a person who would like to think I'm in a progressive community, I was somewhat disappointed with what had transpired in Tampa," Wright said. "It seemed everyone was somewhat disgruntled with the economic opportunities for African-Americans and where we were."
Community leaders met to talk about attracting blacks to the city, but Wright said the discussion couldn't be meaningful without adding a cultural component.
So with the help of the convention and visitors bureau, Wright set out in 2000 to create a series of USF events that would be part of the 2001 Super Bowl week. He was so determined he told USF officials he would have to decline a promotion if it was going to prevent him from working on the festival.
And he quickly vanquished detractors, who told him they didn't want to help organize a one-time, window dressing event for the Super Bowl.
"I told them, "I'm not a window-dresser person,' " Wright said. "I was concerned about educating black children about who they are. And I was concerned about educating the masses, regardless of ethnicity, about the contributions African-Americans have made to the United States and to the African diaspora."
After three years, the festival had blossomed into a community event that attracted folks from around the bay and around the nation. A visitors bureau survey found people attending from as far away as Massachusetts, Texas and California, and the group's ethnic background also was diverse: 45 percent African-American, 41 percent white, 11 precent Hispanic.
In 2003, Wright turned over the reins to a new committee headed by State Farm Insurance agent Ken Anthony. Anthony said one of the committee's goals was to encompass other activities related to the annual Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Now the festival includes events at USF, Hillsborough Community College, Blake High, the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, MacDill Air Force Base, Tropicana Field and the Tampa Museum of Art.
"We looked to upgrade the quantity as well as the quality," Anthony said.
But the vision of educating the community hasn't been lost. The committee has added a "living history" component. Last year, an airing of the movie Rosewood was coupled with a Q&A session with a survivor of the 1923 massacre.
On Tuesday, some Tuskegee Airmen will speak at Tampa Theater before an airing of a 1995 movie about their role in World War II.
The centerpiece will be the two-day street festival at USF on Jan. 15-16. Musical acts will include CoCo Brown and The PhatCat Players and '70s super band ConFunkShun. For a list of events, you can go to tampablackheritage.org.
Or you could check the Jan. 2 travel section of the Knoxville News-Sentinel. The Southeast Tourism Society also has listed the festival among it's top 20 regional events for January and February.
"We needed it in our community," Wright said. "Our children needed it and we need an annual revival and a renewal of who we are to keep us moving forward."
After five years, the festival is poised to become a beacon for the state and the region. But it's Tampa Bay that stands to benefit the most.
That's all I'm saying.
Ernest Hooper can be reached at (813) 226-3406 or Hoopersptimes.com.
"I'll Follow the Drum Beat," 4 p.m., Blake High School, $5
"African Images in African American Quilts," Tampa Art Museum, through April 3
Tuskegee Airmen Exhibit, Hillsborough Community College, through March 4
18th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Celebration, noon, USF MLK Plaza, Tampa Campus, through Wednesday
Tampa Tribune Employment Expo, Embassy Suites
"Living History," Tuskegee Airmen movie with question and answer session, 6 p.m., Tampa Theatre
Black on Black Rhyme _ Semifinals Spoken Word Competition, 8 p.m., Faze2 Lounge, 2807 E Busch Blvd. $5 (Ladies Free).
Urban Bush Women, 8 p.m., Performing Arts Center, $19.50 and up. THURSDAY
Coach Ken Carter, a film screening, 6:30 p.m., USF Special Events Center
Black on Black Rhyme _ Finals Spoken Word Competition, 8 p.m. Faze2 Lounge. $5.
Tampa Black Heritage Street Festival, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., USF Tampa Campus
5K Fun Run and Walk, 9 a.m.-noon, Blake High School
Bay Area Brotherhood MLK Banquet _ Soul Food Fashion Show, 5 p.m., Enlisted Club MacDill Air Force Base. $30.
MLK Event, 8 p.m., Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center
Tampa Bay Black Heritage Street Festival, "On Que Players," 10 a.m.-6 p.m., USF Campus
SCLC Festival of Bands, 6:30 p.m., Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg
TOBA MLK Breakfast, 6:45 a.m., Ala Carte Pavilion. $25.
Tampa-Hillsborough County MLK Parade, noon, starts at Blake High School
SCLC Drum Major for Justice, 1:15 p.m., MLK Parade, St. Petersburg
Source: Tampa Bay Black Heritage Festival Inc.