Supporters looking to cement the standing of Baltimore's African American Heritage Festival as one of the region's premier summer events got the ultimate validation yesterday from Gloria Bartholomew: It's a big deal, she said, even by New York standards.
The Brooklynite came down to Baltimore with her sister and brother-in-law so they could join her nephew, Walter Nanton of Chase, in what has become an annual rite for his family - sampling the food, hearing the music perusing the art and soaking up the history of their African-American and Afro-Caribbean heritage.
"It's the entertainment, but it's also the togetherness of everyone. It's peaceful," Nanton said while hugging his 8-year-old daughter, Gabrielle Booker. "It's one of those summer things you look forward to every year."
In its fourth year, the event outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards has become one of the largest festivals in Maryland. With the weekend's good weather, organizers hoped to top 450,000 visitors.
But the festival took on an added national prominence this year because of its partnership with the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, which had its grand opening yesterday, said Mary Wright, a founding member of the festival committee.
"This is the weekend to be in Baltimore for African-American culture," she said.
Shuttle buses ran festivalgoers to the museum and back throughout the day yesterday, and many of the families wandering through the booths at the festival said they had either come from the museum or planned to go there.
"I just wanted to expose my daughter to the complexities of the culture," said Kerith Joseph of Woodstock, who came to the festival with his 3-year- old daughter, Caitlin, his wife, Dawn Joseph, and his sister-in-law Shannon Allen.
"It's a different environment I wanted to take advantage of, instead of being in a building or classroom," he said.
African-American history has always been a central part of the festival, but some of the exhibits that were featured in previous years have a permanent home in the Lewis museum, Wright said. This year's festival features exhibits on African-American art, the history of black lawyers in Maryland (including civil rights legend Thurgood Marshall), the area's predominantly black colleges, and black fraternities and sororities.
Other exhibits, such as a large NASA booth, were designed to interest kids in careers in science and technology.
Richard Butler of Columbia, who was at the festival to help set up the Black Family Technology Awareness Week booth, said the event is a perfect opportunity for organizations like his, which works to expose black children to computers and technology early in life. Because families tend to go to the festival together, Butler said, he can reach both the children and the parents who can make decisions and set priorities.
"We don't want this to be a hip-hop party," he said. "We want this to be an information party."
Dozens of other organizations promoting health screenings, organ donation, financial planning, voluntarism and other causes also took the opportunity to reach out to the largely African-American audience.
The festival also drew a variety of African art and clothing vendors, who said the festival is one of the best on the East Coast for finding their target audience. Many of the families who came to the festival said the art stalls are a highlight and something they wanted to expose their children to because it's rare to see so many kinds of African art in one place.
"A lot of people are interested," said Martin Mushambo, an immigrant to Baltimore from Zambia who embosses scenes of Africa onto sheets of copper, which he then tints by using chemical solutions to discolor the metal. "Most of the African art they see is wood carvings. Most haven't seen this kind of metalwork before."
African-American music and food were also draws, and festivalgoers said the event offers a greater variety of both than most festivals. Last night's headliner, hip-hop/soul artist Lauryn Hill, canceled, but other acts, including the soul and funk band Mint Condition, R&B; singer Vivian Green and rap veteran Doug E. Fresh were scheduled to fill the gap.
By early yesterday afternoon, families had already staked out spots for their lawn chairs and blankets, some just inches from the stage and others far away under fleeting patches of shade.
Food stalls offered festival staples such as funnel cakes and corn dogs but also collard greens, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, oxtails, barbecued ribs, fried catfish and lake trout and what one vendor boasted to the crowd were "the best fried shrimp in the world."
"The cultures all blend together, the music, the food," said Tracey Booker, Nanton's wife.
"I hope it keeps on going for many, many years," Nanton said.
The festival continues today from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is free, but organizers request a $1 donation.