Asheville Goombay Festival is a time to celebrate the richness and diversity found in the food, music, and art across the African diaspora.
The city’s first Goombay Festival was held in 1982, at a time when the YMI was emerging from a period of financial difficulties. It had been less than a decade since “Urban Renewal” had taken the vast majority of homes and businesses in the neighborhood, virtually destroying the fabric of the community that had long been the heart of Black Asheville.
In response, a small group of supporters, the Friends of the YMI, were on the lookout for ways to re-invigorate the historic institute, both as a vibrant center for Black culture in Asheville and as one of the first—possibly the very first—African American community centers in the country.
The Urban News asked Gloria Free, a longtime YMI booster and the founding originator of Asheville’s Goombay, and her daughter Sherri Free, how the festival came about.
In 1975 some members of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority visited Miami Beach, where Mrs. Free and her sorors had their first encounter with Goombay, a lively Afro-Caribbean heritage festival.
“I was so impressed with it,” she recalls. “The beach at nighttime, moonlight over the ocean, tiki lanterns, steel drums, dancing the limbo … the people celebrating the freedom to dance, the freedom to be, celebrating their culture and history.”
Back in Asheville, she recognized that what was happening in the mountains and what was happening in Miami were very different, so she began to wonder: “With the waves and the ocean, my people there being so nimble with their culture and dance, how could I carry that home with me?”
Mrs. Free pondered that question over the next several years. “Those of us in the mountains who have our own challenges and history, how can we express our own emotions and our culture? We needed our own way to express our spirit. I thought about Bele Chere [Asheville’s longtime downtown festival of arts and crafts], and I thought, ‘Why can’t we do that?’”
With perfect synchronicity, Mrs. Free’s ideas and passion finally came together. The Friends of the YMI—Jacquelyn King, Willie Vincent, Evelyn Green, Jackie Scott, and a few others—were discussing doing a fundraiser, and she introduced the idea of holding an Asheville Goombay. “Yes,” they said, “we’ll take this on!” And the Friends oversaw the first three festivals.
Sherri Free recalls that “During the first three years, just local people were involved: the Ambassadors had a truck where they sold fish, I had a hibachi that I set up and grilled hot dogs on the sidewalk. There was a Queen of Goombay who came up from Bermuda, but other than that it was all grass roots, with local people. A local caterer, Louise McMorris, catered one of the dinners that were sold, and Forest Weaver did a pig roast, so barbeque was offered. There was homemade Ginger Beer and lots of people wearing island garb. It was so festive, joyful, and exciting … a true labor of love by the Friends!”
Now, four decades after that first festival, following a one-year hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Asheville Goombay is back on the Block where it began. The festival is still free and open to anyone and everyone who wishes to attend. And while much has changed, with vendors and performers from across WNC and elsewhere, the festival is still the city’s premiere celebration of African American culture and history in the mountain region.
In anticipation of the 40th anniversary celebration, YMI Board Chair Stephanie Swepson-Twitty said, “The Goombay Festival represents an opportunity to highlight the African American experience and the YMI’s role in crafting that experience. It continues to promote the historical legacy of the ‘Founding Fathers’ to promote the entrepreneurial spirit of African Americans in Asheville, NC.”
The 2021 Asheville Goombay will be held Labor Day weekend, September 3-5, 2021, on the Block in downtown Asheville. Festival hours: Friday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Find complete details at www.ymiculturalcenter.org/goombay.
The YMI Cultural Center
A 501c3 tax-exempt organization, the YMI Cultural Center has five core components: community programming, community forums, an annual cultural festival, cultural exhibitions, and programs to promote economic literacy.
Visit the YMICC, located at 39 South Market St., in Asheville. For more information, please call (828) 257-4540, or visit www.YMICulturalCenter.org