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Revived Black Arts Festival pulls in crowds

So many people were disappointed last year when the Wichita Black Arts Festival offered a severely curtailed gathering. The disappointment came not only because the melt-off-the-bone barbecue tastes so good, but because the festival is a rare occasion when Wichita’s African-American community (along with other groups) meets as extended family.

“I told organizers this year that please, whatever else you do, bring it back this year,” said Lavonta Williams, a Wichita City Council member. “It’s very important to Wichita.”

Organizers looked happy on Saturday, as did Williams.

Hundreds of people showed up as soon as the revived festival started in earnest with a parade on Saturday morning. The barbecue smelled enticing for hundreds of yards around, and as volunteer Chris Key pointed out, it melted off the bone, as it has for many years.

“This festival really is a family reunion for the city, and for our community,” said D’Marcus Williams, another festival volunteer who has come to the gathering for years. It’s a chance for school classmates to reunite, he said; to meet friends who haven’t seen each other for years, a chance to reconnect with roots, not to mention enjoy art on display, food and music throbbing in the air.

Key, whose father Eric Key used to direct the Kansas African American Museum and used to be a fixture here, said he loves the vibrant community feeling the festival inspires. A promoter now for events and artists, Chris Key left Wichita for about three years, but was back in time for the festival — and people he hadn’t seen for years were calling out to him as though he’d never left. Those that didn’t remember his first name asked if he’s Eric Key’s son. Some former Wichitans living elsewhere now are so fond of their community and festival that they drive long distances to attend, he said.

With his father encouraging him, he’s been serving as a festival volunteer for going on 10 years, since elementary school.

There were many good things to eat: tacos, candy, pickles, snow cones, fish and fries, turkey legs.

There were vendors selling wares, and people selling causes: David Gilkey, a longtime mentor of young people for the Urban League, showed up wearing his anti-gang T-shirt while extolling the virtues of festival food to passers-by. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Democratic state senator from Wichita, set up a booth with family and friends, and lobbied passers-by to register to vote.

She grew up here, she said, not only with this 44-year-old festival but in this neighborhood — as a kid she used to swim in the park swimming pool and walk home with her siblings, getting a little dirty again from the dirt road that still leads to her home.

Putting the festival together again was a mission that needed accomplishing, but it wasn’t easy, said Dana McPherson, president of the Wichita Black Arts Festival Association.

He and other organizers have met since January to revive the full festival, a task that included raising thousands of dollars from the community, corporate sponsors, donors and from sales this weekend of $3 festival buttons. The expenses are many: park fees, security, insurance, and more — “and it all had to be collected and ready up front, or the festival wouldn’t happen at all.” He and other organizers pulled it off.

Though most vendors and attendees on Saturday were African-American, he said all groups are welcome, and that there is some participation this year by vendors and attendees from Hispanic, Asian and other groups. All people are welcome; it’s an all-Wichita festival showcasing the cultural vibrancy of the African-American community, he said.

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