Fifteen years ago, two neighbors sat trying to catch a breeze on a front porch. It was August in Lowndes County, Alabama and it was hot. It had not rained in weeks, and most folks’ gardens had burned up. It seemed like summer would never end and the two women were bored. Alice Stewart loved to cook, and had begun getting up at 4 a.m. to watch Martha Stewart on TV and cook before it got too hot. Barbara Evans, an activist and self-taught artist, had begun keeping similar hours just to avoid the heat. The two friends came up with an idea. They would have a neighborhood party. As they sat planning the food for the party, they commiserated about their burned up gardens. Only the okra was still producing. “We’ve got the shrimp festival and the peanut festival”, said Barbara. “We can call our party the okra festival!” Thus it came to be.
Barbara had built a little shotgun dwelling that housed her art, art she had gathered from other places (she’s lived in 14 states) and her collection of civil rights historic memorabilia. The party was held, and the neighborhood came along with friends and relatives of the women. Many of the neighbors had not seen the inside of the art gallery, called Annie Mae’s Place, and even today folks do not know how to describe it.
The next year brought more people. Alice and the Stewart family began cooking for a crowd and selling plates. Barbara sold her art. Sadly, after a couple of years, Alice developed breast cancer and after a mighty battle, she died. Alice died just weeks before the Okra Festival, but her family decided she would want them to continue, and they did.
This year’s Okra Festival will be held, as always, on the last Saturday in August. That’s when the okra is bearing at full tilt. Like the two women, okra is strong and resilient. A few weeks of drought isn’t about to kill it. Indeed, it seems to bear with abandon during bad weather. Barbara was born up North and was not raised eating okra. But she knows that it has a serious following. She developed a recipe for Okra Pie, and whole pies are sold at the festival.
Barbara Evans has continued to hold the Okra Festival, which takes place in her yard and across the street in the yard of the Stewarts. Barbara says she wanted the Okra Festival to be about community, working together and love, not about money. So admission is always free and vendors do not pay vendor fees. They are encouraged to give a donation to the nonprofit event. Barbara raises money by writing grants and by asking. The first 7 or 8 years she handled the expenses but soon it became too much. Black Belt Community Foundation is a major supporter, as is the Lowndes County Commission. A couple businesses contribute. But the festival remains simple…..live music, great food, unusual art and lots of nice people.
The Festival was a legacy for Alice and every year, we ask her to hold off the rain. Most years she is successful, but sometimes Alice decides we need to remember the power of God and when that happens, folks run for the tents and wait it out. The Okra Festival has always been free. Barbara has set down some rules. First and foremost, you must live in Lowndes County to sell food. And the food is legend. You can get anything from a pig ear sandwich to seafood gumbo, to fried ribs, greens, sweet potato pies and home squeezed lemonade. This year, two vendors, Irene Williams and Rosa Crawford passed away but their families are continuing their work.
For 13 years the Okra Festival has presented the internationally known letterpress printer and bookmaker, Amos Paul Kennedy. Despite his move to Detroit a few years ago, Kennedy arrives at the Okra Festival, springs from his vehicle and presents a new Okra Festival poster. He also brings posters of all persuasions but delights his fans with his irreverence, wit and humor. His posters are all over the country and even the world, and are seen even in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. Kennedy is always dressed in overalls and a pink shirt and sports a wide grin. It is worth coming to the festival to meet him! Kennedy assists with Barbara’s Rule Number 2, which is that you must have a good time.
In a tiny community known as Burkville (we call it Burkville South because the Alabama map has Burkville on the river), right off highway 80, are signs and banners about the Okra Festival. As you turn on Frederick Douglass Road you’ll see a sign that says, “Welcome to Burkville, Home of the Okra Festival”. You will notice that all the roads are named after African Americans. Turn on Harriet Tubman Road and you will see the sign showing you where to park for free. The festival begins at 11 a.m. and is usually over by 5 p.m. Other than the heat, it’s an easy day in the country. And you might see what Barbara sees. She’s the white woman that integrated Burkville South 26 years ago. What you will see is the beloved community. You’ll see blacks and whites, maybe a few Asians and Hispanics….eating together, talking together, maybe even dancing together. You’ll see all ages of people. Kids are running loose. People are laughing. Bunches of guys meet up there every year. Young women dressed to kill sashay through the crowds (wishing they had worn flat shoes). You’ll hear Guitar Slim and the Soulful Saints playing their music under the big trees. It’s a break from the angst of today’s world. Inside Annie Mae’s Place is the history and art of another time, with a mention of today. It’s all about love. The love of okra, the love of place, the love for each other.