‘Educate, empower, entertain’ at Meriden Black Heritage Festival

Saturday, June 15, 2013
Meriden Record-Journal
Meriden, CT

The McFadden family members had their tent up and the fryers spitting before the parade at Hubbard Park stepped off Saturday morning.

“We’ve been doing this since inception,” one family member said.

The women behind the whiting sandwiches, chicken wings, french fries, Georgia hot sandwiches and mini sweet potato pies were in full swing by noon.

The 24th annual Meriden Black Heritage Festival helps the McFadden family and other vendors raise funds for themselves or their causes. For the McFaddens, it’s also to promote their dinner bash Saturday night at the Four Points by Sheraton hotel.

“This is the place we’re selling tickets,” Jeannette Dunn said with a sly smile. Family members, who have lived in the city all their lives, join 200 to 300 other McFaddens for an annual reunion in a different state every year. The money supports a college scholarship program.

Supporting entrepreneurship is only one goal of the Black Heritage Festival, said chairwoman Brenda Shuler. “We are here to educate, empower and entertain,” Shuler said. “We’re here to share and enjoy the African-American culture.”

This year’s cultural festival was moved from City Park to Hubbard Park after last year’s 62 vendors and other attractions forced organizers to find more space. Organizers also wanted to be in place when the festival celebrates its 25th anniversary, Shuler said.

“We’re growing and we wanted to make sure we’re in position for next year,” Shuler said. “We added the carnival, and with that space we needed more room.” Shuler said this year’s vendors included health care and financial services representatives.

“Many of our people don’t go to the doctor regularly,” she said. “We want to give them access to info. The black community is also the largest unbanked community in the United States. We are starting to increase entrepreneurship in our community so we can increase jobs.”

As young people danced to hip-hop music, visitors couldn’t resist the smells from vendors such as Big Belly Kelly’s BBQ and Catering, of Ledyard. There was also West Indian food from Waterbury, La Perla’s Criollo from Meriden, and fried fish, fried Oreos, frozen canolis, and gourmet egg rolls.

Artist Nicole Grant, of Bridgeport, came to the festival hoping to sell her abstract expressionist art and because she likes the ambiance. Grant, of Unicole Artistry, sells paintings and sculptures in Caribbean colors.

Her sculptures mix media such as raffia and clay, even driftwood, to make unique whimsical characters.

“It has a Caribbean, reggae vibe,” Grant said.

There were also painted African masks, sculptures, oils, and authentic and costume jewelry on sale.

Martha Walker, of Hamden, came to the festival for the first time because her grown children had a booth and because it’s important to share cultures.


“It seems like a nice turnout of vendors,” Walker said. “We’ll be better people when we can know and understand each other and embrace the differences.” Katara Crawford, of East Hartford, came to the festival to support friends, and was pleasantly surprised.

“Everything smells delicious,” Crawford said. “It’s very important to do something to recognize heritage. It’s not only electronics, its smiling, sharing, getting out there. The food, children dancing and singing that’s important these days.”

The Rev. Larry Elliot, director of New Opportunities of Greater Meriden, said celebrations of any culture benefit the community and he’s grateful to be part of the African-American culture.

“In any culture there are a lot of positive things and we want people to see, feel and enjoy the great things in the African-American culture.” The festival continues at noon today.

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