History plays big role at African-American Heritage Festival

Louise Burkholder said her booth at the annual African-American Heritage Festival, which features a collection of historical artifacts from different periods in black history, always teaches someone something new.

On Sunday, at the festival’s 21st installment, that person was Altoona resident Joshua Lowery. Lowery, 28, said he moved to the region when he was 10 and was the only black student in his school class at that time.

Black history, he said, wasn’t a prominent topic in history class.

That’s why the items at Burkholder’s booth awed him, he said. Artifacts included items dating back to the early 1800s, when blacks were still enslaved, all the way to comic books from the modern era.

“I wasted 20 years of not knowing anything,” Lowery said.

Burkholder was one of a number of vendors at the festival Saturday on Penn State Altoona’s campus.

The event, which is coordinated by the African-American Heritage Project of Blair County, brings people together for a day of food, performances and shopping.

Most importantly, though, visitors walk away with a sense of community, Burkholder said.

“It’s just so nice to see a place where everyone comes together,” she said.

Performers spanned a wide variety of acts. A praise choir and history discussion opened the event, and step dancers, hip-hop artists and jazz musicians followed.

In the late afternoon, the Pittsburgh-based Ibeji Drum Ensemble took the stage, inviting members of the audience to join them and learn some new moves to traditional African drumming.

Anthony Mitchell, a professor of African and African-American studies at Penn State Greater Allegheny and one of the ensemble’s co-founders, said that visitors should recognize the importance that traditional music has for the black community.

“The music that you’re hearing today is the great- great-grandfather and grandmother of African people in the United States,” Mitchell told the crowd.

He said that older generations need to make sure they’re imparting that wisdom on the younger generations of black people.

History was a common thread Sunday. Jared Frederick, a history instructor at Penn State Altoona, put together a Civil War display at the festival, showcasing the history Blair County has with the war.

Several dozen black soldiers that fought for the Union in the Civil War were from the region, he said. Most traveled farther north, to Massachusetts, to join the fight, he said.

“It’s a very tangible connection to the war,” Frederick said. “It allows people to learn about those hidden histories.”

Lowery said he is going to work to impart what he learned at the festival on to his two children, and is going to volunteer to work with Burkholder to continue spreading more knowledge about black history.

“I learned so much here,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Paige Minemyer is at 946-7535.