Every second Sunday in June, 15 blocks on Philadelphia’s South Street overflow with people. At the Odunde Festival, you’ll see crowds dressed in various African prints, you’ll smell the aroma of Southern and Caribbean food, there’s drumming and dancing on every corner, and the thousands who attend support the hundreds of international Black-owned businesses that come to vend.
The festival was co-founded by Lois Fernandez in 1975 with a small $100 grant. She was inspired after attending the Ill Ife Festival in Nigeria, and wanted to bring the energy of African culture to the U.S. When she spoke of a festival that celebrated the diaspora, back then, people thought she was crazy.
They were crazy wrong.
Now, the city staple has grown to attract thousands of attendees and has become the largest African-American festival in the country, which begins with a formal offering being made by observers dressed in white to the Yoruba goddess, Oshun.
But the historically Black South Philly neighborhood began to change shortly after the festival was founed. In 1984, a petition was drafted asking that Fernandez move the festival to another location, with the city offering to fund the move. Fernandez refused and fiercely fought for the festival to stay in its birthplace.
Fernandez, who was not not only the co-founder of Odunde but an activist in Philadelphia, passed away last year. Her daughter, Oshunbumi “Bumi” Fernandez-West continues to carry on her legacy as the CEO and organizer of Odunde. In fact, the recently renamed the 2300 block of South Street after her mother.
In a time when the gathering of Black people is being overly policed and reported (Cc: #PermitPatty and #BBQBecky), Odunde’s existence is resistance.
This festival is Philly’s soft spot, and it’s part of the reason I fell in love with the city. Watching all these beautiful Black people from across the diaspora gather to celebrate our existence, when there’s so many forces encouraging us not to, never ceases to bring joy and pride to my heart.
It is an experience best experienced for oneself.
As a journalist in Philadelphia, I covered the festival many times, taking photos of attendees in their beautiful outfits. However, it never felt like enough. I always wanted to share the power, beauty, joy and love that’s a part of Odunde in way that captured the essence of the festival.
With this series, we give you a snapshot of the festival through three different lenses.
This year, the first without Lois Fernandez, it rained. But the spirits of the people were still high. That is the resilience of this festival.
This is Odunde.