After two years of pandemic disruption, Cecilia DeShields was thrilled to return Sunday to South Street to take part in a festival that has been a part of her life for more than four decades.
“I don’t miss it,” DeShields, 67, of West Philadelphia said of her dedication to attending the Odunde Festival, the annual African American street festival billed as the country’s largest. Stretching along South Street west of Broad Street and radiating out to encompass 15 city blocks, the event was started by the late Lois Fernandez in 1975 as a celebration of African culture, and has grown to draw as many as 500,000 people.
But COVID-19 forced the festival to go virtual the last two years. So for people such as DeShields — who grew up in the neighborhood and has watched the event blossom from a two-block occasion to the array of jewelry, art and clothing vendors, food trucks, and entertainment stages that brought thousands out Sunday — its return this year felt like a homecoming.
“This is a group of people of color coming together, enjoying the festivities and loving every minute of it,” DeShields said.
That celebratory attitude permeated the atmosphere Sunday, a week after violence erupted on the other end of South Street — with a mass shooting that left three dead and a dozen wounded.
Many festival-goers Sunday didn’t bring up the shooting or the broader gun violence epidemic that has plagued the city. But some said it was important to demonstrate resilience and their commitment to participating in city life.
“Regardless of what happens, we’re going to stand by the city,” said Debra Heaven. “We’re going to be city strong.”
She and Nyshawana Francis-Thompson, both administrators in the School District of Philadelphia, stood in a long line for food Sunday afternoon, but were undeterred by the wait — figuring that fellow customers must be onto something. “You can’t go wrong with fried shrimp and wings,” Francis-Thompson said.
A festival regular, Francis-Thompson said she loves “the culture — representing everything we are as Black people.” She was impressed by the art on display, including paintings with African fabric woven into them.
Her daughter, 7-year-old Nina Thompson, said she was a fan of “the jewelry, the art, the food” — and was enjoying a cup of tropical water ice that had melted down in the muggy heat.
While the thunderstorms that threatened to interfere with the afternoon hadn’t materialized, vendors such as Kay Luke endured rain earlier in the day. “My feet are kind of still wet,” Luke, 36, said as she manned her booth Sunday afternoon, helping a customer who was buying three rings for $36.
But it hadn’t marred her enthusiasm for the event.
“There’s nothing like Odunde,” said Luke, who lives in Newark, N.J. An Afro Caribbean artist who paints and makes clothing, she draws inspiration from women of color: “That’s the muse for everything I do.” Luke said she looks forward to the annual festival for “the energy, the people, the love. I come back for the love and support.”
The vendor offerings were also a big draw for DeShields, a self-professed “T-shirt person” who snagged a “Black Wall Street” shirt Sunday afternoon. “You can go broke today,” she joked.
Others were wearing items they had bought at previous festivals in honor of the event’s return.
“I told my wife, ‘I’m going full Odunde,’” said Thierry Fortune, 60, of Wynnefield, who was dressed in an outfit he had purchased several years earlier: a light tan tunic and pants made out of a canvas material, with several small embroidered zebras. He was also carrying two wooden staffs — “I love my staffs” — including one he had purchased Sunday, with what appeared to be a hippo head carved into the handle.
Part of the fun of the festival is seeing what other people are wearing, Fortune said: “People in really cool outfits, strutting down the street.”
Making a brief appearance Sunday was Mayor Jim Kenney, who took the stage on South Street after a dance and double dutch performance from members of the 40+ Double Dutch Club.
“That’s what the city should be about, having a good time and loving each other and respecting each other,” said Kenney, who was introduced by Fernandez’s daughter, Oshunbumi Fernandez-West, now the head of the festival. Kenney added: “I love this event, because it really does celebrate African culture, the great African culture and the great African American culture, and it’s done really well here.”
Garnering some attention and photo requests from passersby, but moving largely unobstructed through the crowd was Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw. Dressed in street clothes — with a T-shirt that read “Trust Your Dopeness” — and accompanied by a uniformed officer, Outlaw said in a brief interview that police had “made the necessary adjustments” on South Street the night before.
“We can’t keep people inside,” she said. “People have a right to be out and about.”
And that’s what she was doing Sunday in attending Odunde, she said.
“This isn’t the police commissioner. This is Danielle. I’m a regular person,” she said, adding that she enjoys what the festival has to offer.