Georgia Calhoun, a retired teacher who started the festival in 1980, said she came up with the idea as a way to celebrate African-American history. At the time, Calhoun was the only black member on Anniston’s Museum League Board.
“I believed if one person walked into an open door that he or she could let others in,” Calhoun said. “So this question became my mission: ‘How do I get more blacks to the museum?’ I had a revelation: If I could get the children then I would get the parents.”
The idea of a children’s oratory contest emerged as a way to preserve the work of black authors and poets, she said.
“I could have the kids learn and recite poetry and literary prose and they would be judged on their ability to speak clearly, stand straight, gesture and stay within the confines of the given time limit,” Calhoun said.
That was more than three decades ago, and Calhoun hasn’t looked back. Her sorority sisters of the Iota Mu Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority helped her organize the first Black Heritage Festival. The event was held outside and vendors submitted their soul foods to a “tasting bee” that allowed attendees to gather a taste of history-rich food.
It was considered a huge success, but Calhoun wasn’t satisfied. She began inviting choruses from historically black colleges and universities to participate, and has since hosted choirs from nearly every university in the Southeast.
“I needed the kids to see some discipline and be exposed to something better,” Calhoun said. “That’s what these events are really about, teaching the kids valuable life lessons and giving them high hopes for the future. This festival exposes diamonds — diamonds in the rough, but diamonds.”
Calhoun said the students’ oratory performances are more than just recitation.
“Before they are ever allowed to perform I make them answer these four questions about the piece they have chosen,” she said. “One, who is the speaker? Are they male or female, bound or free? Two, what time is he or she speaking in? Is it summer, winter, spring or fall? Is it slavery or post-slavery? Is it a time of war or a time of peace? Three, where is the author? And four, what is the message being given?”
Contestants range from kindergartners through high-school seniors. Three winners are chosen from each age group, and sponsors provide cash prizes.
This year’s festival will be Saturday, Feb. 16 from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. at the Longleaf Botanical Gardens and will feature music from the Alabama A&M University Chorus. The event is free to attend and food will be available for purchase onsite. Visit www.annistonmuseum.org for more information about the Black Heritage Festival.