History of the Black Heritage Festival of Louisiana
The mission of the Black Heritage Festival of Louisiana is to develop, expose and educate audiences to the arts and culture of African-Americans, and provide arts and humanities opportunities to all citizens of Southwest Louisiana, thereby, expanding tourism opportunities; enhancing economic development; and providing cultural and educational opportunities to the diverse regional population.
The SWLA Black Heritage Festival had its beginning on April 7, 1987 when two women, Mrs. Cynthia May and Mrs. Virginia C. Riley, made a decision to combine a play written by Mrs. Riley with the activities of a festival for the community.
The purpose of this project was to give people from all areas and walks of life the opportunity to see, hear, and participate in black history.
In order to answer the needs of the growing African-American population, the Black Heritage Festival was established in 1987 by Virginia Riley. It provides the general public with greater access to African-American culture through the presentation of performing arts and educational events.
The first festival, held February 1988, gave way to a tradition of fostering pride and increased cultural awareness among residents and visitors of Southwest Louisiana that still resonates today.
For the 1989 and 1990 festival, Stella Brown Hartfield led the festival as President. In April 1990, the name was changed to the Black Heritage Festival of Louisiana, and Mrs. Hartfield was named Executive Director, followed by Judith Warren Washington (2010 – 2019). Frankie Johnson Lane was named President in 1992, followed by Barbara Houston Cahee (2007 – 2015), and Glenda Brown Gay (2015 – Present).
In 1989 the Southwest Louisiana Black Heritage Festival Pageant, a vision of Mary Duhon Brown, was established. Its mission was to promote inner beauty among young girls and young ladies of all ethnic groups while producing positive role models for the community, and presenting young ladies who will promote self-confidence, self-worth, moral, academic and social support for other youth. The first to be crowned queen was Miss Tom-meka Archinard. In 1994, Cynthia Thorne Metoyer became the Executive Director of the Black Heritage Festival Pageant.
The Entertainment Hall of Fame was established in 1991 as a vision of Cynthia Coffy Daigle and Chester Daigle, II as a way to recognize local African-Americans who have exhibited outstanding contributions in the performing arts. The first recipient was Mr. Willie Marchand.
In November, 1991, the Festival published its cookbook, “Cooking From Across The Tracks”. The cookbook committee, chaired by Donna Givens Jones, featured favorite recipes of local chefs and cooks. The cookbook is widely sought nationwide.
In 1992 the Children Arts Arena was added. The mission was to provide hands-on art, local and regional entertainment for children of all ages. The Arena was later renamed Kidz Zone by Malinda Reese Stevens, Director.
Education is important, so the Black Heritage Festival became a Partner in Education with John F. Kennedy Elementary School in 1995. The Partners in Education program was developed by the Chamber Southwest and the Calcasieu Parish School Board and designed to connect business and individuals with schools in order to help improve public education by providing support for the well-being of local children and their families, for the general health of our community, and for the educational contribution to a vibrant economy.*
The Black Heritage Gallery, a project of Black Heritage Festival of Louisiana, Inc. opened on June 28, 2001 with a grant from the Junior League of Lake Charles, Inc. In February 2008, Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu announced the gallery as one of the 26 initial sites on Louisiana’s African-American Trail. The first project was the “The Negro League Baseball Exhibit,” a vision of Stella Brown Miller and Frankie Johnson Lane.
In 2006 the members of the Black Heritage Festival noticed that many students throughout the community were underserved, unprepared and often misinformed when it came to financial aid for higher education. The Festival, with the vision of Claudia Jacobs Williams, wanted to provide students and parents with the tools needed to understand and successfully search for and obtain financial aid for higher education. The annual Black Heritage Festival Scholarship Seminar and College Fair was established. The Black Heritage Festival awards scholarships annually to deserving students.
The festival remains a Southeast Tourism Society Top 20 Event.