Stone Soul Festival continues into its 34th year bringing the African American community together

SPRINGFIELD — The 34th annual Stone Soul Festival kicked off its second day with a parade from the Rebecca M. Johnson School on Catharine Street all the way up State Street to Blunt Park Road and the park at the end. Leading the procession was Springfield native and two-time Academy Award-winning costume designer, Ruth E. Carter, named the honorary parade chairman, along with Mayor Domenic J. Sarno and several hundred Springfield residents.

Started in 1989, the festival has grown year after year. This year, the theme of the festival is “Surviving Through Thick and Thin.”

Jay Griffin now serves as the program chairman. He is credited with the initial idea for the festival back in the day. He said Friday that growing up in Springfield gave him every chance to celebrate different cultures and ethnic groups.

“I was born and bred here in Springfield. I went to the Italian festivals, and I went to the Irish festivals, and I went to the Greek festivals,” he said. “Then I said, ‘I wonder when there will be an African American festival just for us. So, a bunch of us got together. At first, it was a picnic, so we called it the Stone Soul Picnic after the song on the radio. So many people wanted to participate. But it was exhausting. I was glad when it was over. But then somebody came up and said, ‘Oh are we going to do this again next year?’ That was the start of it. When it got bigger and better organized, we decided it should be called the Stone Soul Festival.”

Asked if the festival lived up to his expectations, he smiled and said, “Above and beyond. You see every nationality presented here today and it is safe.”

The festival also serves to highlight minority-owned businesses, giving them a showcase for their crafts, products and services.

Treva Waldron set up her booth of custom-designed gemstone jewelry. Called Lady T’s, her business is just starting and she hoped to gain some exposure through the festival.

“The design work has been a hobby for many years but last year I went full-time,” she said. “There are a lot of people here and they are very friendly. The community has put together a great festival. I am anticipating great sales.”

Kathy Zachery said she was having a great day already even as she set up her booth with thermal cups with Bluetooth speakers built in.

“We have had about 75 units sold from pre-event orders,” she said.

Her company, Black Diamond Design, also offers T-shirts and tumblers with her custom designs.

Tanya Harvey, the principal at THG Real Estate, has come to the festival for the past four years that it was held. She said the ability to talk to people face to face is a real attraction.

“What I do is education about home ownership and investing in real estate, investing in the community,” she said. “It is really nicer to talk to people directly about mortgages and how to sell their home if that is what they want to do. I also give workshops on first-time home buying.”

She said the festival is one of the best in the area.

When it comes to seafood, Joe Holley said he has the best variety. “We got porgy, Sea bass, catfish, tilapia, white perch and whiting,” he said.

He said he goes down to Cape Cod himself and fishes for much of what they sell. You can tell because his fighting rod is out in front of his booth.

Joe and his partner, Sam Lewis, call their booth “Come and Get It,” and Holley said it is not only fresh but the best seafood around.

“It in the seasoning,” he said. “We coat the fish really heavy, and what you taste is the seasoning and the meat.”

Bertha Brown isn’t into fish so much. She makes authentic, home-styled soul food. “Food for the Soul” is both her booth name and her motto. She was a fixture at the festival for six years before COVID-19 interrupted. Now she’s back.

“Everything went well,” she said. “Now we are back and safe, give God some praise.”

Seafood and soul food are wonderful, but sometimes you just need something to shake things up a little. Zemira Allen’s Flaming Fine Foods offers Trinidadian and Tobagonian, easier to say Trinis, savory sweetness. At the festival she is highlighting her roti, what she described as an Indian burrito with curry chicken and mango marsala.

While food is a major aspect of the Stone Soul Festival, it started as a picnic after all, music comes a close second. The festival serves to showcase much of Springfield’s well-established musical talent, such as Music in the Park and Jo Sallins and his trio. On the Friday rundown other performers included Sierra London, Nu Energii and Simone Mone with Malado. Saturday Music in the Park again lead off the day, with Tracy Thomas Dancers, a special edition of Springfield Got Talent along with rapper Brenton Jenkins.

Karon Tyler doesn’t call herself the president of the festival, even though she seems to be serving as such.

“I did have the position of president but I felt it was a little overwhelming, so I decided I am now 100-percent volunteer,” she said.

The Stone Soul Festival has grown over the years, Tyler said, because the African-American community needs to have a focal point, something to focus on.

“There is a need because we need to come together as a community and in order to do that, we could do it by celebrating something on a happy note, a high note, so people will walk away with pleasant memories.”

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