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Preparing for the 10th year of the Okra Festival

By Barbara Evans
Guest Columnist

I don’t know how I got myself into being the founder of the Okra Festival, held each year at my little raggedy house. When my mother died in 1996, she left me a couple thousand dollars.
Did I pay bills or invest that money?  Oh no, that’s for other folks.  I built an art gallery and named it after her and another one of my “sheroes”.
My Mom’s name was Anna Jane.  Family called her Annie.  Soon after my arrival in Lowndes County in 1990, I read about the legendary Annie Mae Merriweather, a leader in the cotton picker’s strike of 1935.
Annie Mae Merriweather devoted her life to justice.  But that’s another story.
So I  took Mom’s money and built a shotgun shack and filled it with art and history, mostly from the Civil Rights Era., and called it Annie Mae’s Place.
While I hosted tour busses from all over, few local people came to see my collection of folk art, gourds and history.
One hot summer day I was whining to my friend and neighbor, Alice Juanita Stewart, and she said we needed to uplift my spirits with a neighborhood party.
Now Alice could cook.  She would get up at 4 a.m. to watch Martha Stewart on TV, and her kitchen was full of great food and preserves.
“You cook, and I’ll paint,” I told Alice.
“But we need a theme,” I said.  We looked around.  It was so hot, the grass was brown, the flowers had dried up, but the okra in the field was strong and green.
“That okra is like us,” I mused, “ It is a strong plant, a fruitful plant, and one that overcomes drought and disease.  They have peanut festivals and shrimp festivals, why not an Okra Festival?”
And thus the Okra Festival was born.
One of my first visits to Lowndes County in 1990 involved driving through Hayneville, and I will never forget that day.
The Hayneville square was full of folk, and a man was playing the blues.  People were barbequing on grills, and the smell was heavenly.
“This is my kind of place,” I thought.
So after the first Okra Festival I set out to find Sunny Boy King, the bluesman.  He’s been our headliner ever since, and during the year I get my fix for his music off his CDs.
I also set out to make sure the Okra Festival did not turn into some commercial dog and pony show.
I wanted local artists, quilters and craftspeople to take center show.  I wanted Lowndes County people to sell the food I loved, and for the world to see an interracial neighborhood where folks truly got along and loved each other.
So I dispensed with the usual vendor fees and admission tickets.  It was a stroke of genius, and that decision has made the Okra Festival the long lasting success it is today.
What I did not expect was the nationwide publicity from our little event.
In 2004, someone videotaped the festival and put it on YouTube.  And people began attending from all over the country, and even places like Spain and Austrailia.
They signed their names on the floors and walls of my little art gallery.  And they wrote messages.  It became a place of spirit and love.
Alice Stewart lost her battle with breast cancer several years ago, just weeks before the festival.  Her family elected to carry on because they knew how she loved the day we had created.
I can still feel her presence, and especially in the days before the event, when I am stressed to the gills, I talk to her and feel her peace.  She would have loved it that we made it to 10 years.
We couldn’t have done this without help in funding.  This year, it’s the Blackbelt Community Foundation (my favorite charity).
We’ve been funded by the Alabama Council on the Arts, Cornerstone Community Foundation, and Districts 4 and 5 of the Lowndes County Commission.
So yall come see us on August 28.  Eat some okra.  Ride a camel.
Listen to some good music.  Come and see what Alice, Lowndes County, and the Lord, have done!