Thousands of people visit Africa in April at historic Robert R. Church Park each year, but its roots are humble.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The Africa Festival in April is about to return to Robert R. Church Park. This will be the 35th year of the annual celebration, launched by David and Yvonne Acey.
The festival is a celebration of African culture, music, education and fashion. Thousands of people visit Africa in April at historic Robert R. Church Park each year, but its roots are humble.
David and Yvonne Acey met at LeMoyne Owen College. David was from Orange Mound and played basketball, swimming and track and field running. Despite his sporting success, he said meeting Yvonne was the real reward.
“The best thing that happened to me at LeMoyne, I met my wife 45 years ago and we’ve been together ever since,” David said.
After leaving LeMoyne and a short stint in the military, David returned to Memphis to attend Memphis State. He earned an undergraduate degree and helped start the Black Student Association on the Memphis State campus.
Back for his master’s degree, David said the communications department asked him to join and teach.
“And I said to them, ‘I don’t want to teach anything from this white mess. I want to teach something black. They said, ‘well, we don’t have any classes.’ I said ‘I’m going to write them down,'” David said.
David then taught at the University of Memphis for 40 years and wrote the first black rhetoric course in Memphis. He would go on to implement other black studies programs as well.
Yvonne, while at LeMoyne-Owen College, became involved with Marion Barry, who became Mayor of Washington DC. They pursued civil rights and voter registration.
The couple’s activism didn’t stop once they got married. The couple launched the Africa in April festival in 1986.
“So what are we going to call it?” David remembers asking Yvonne. “She said, Africa in April Cultural Awareness Festival, bam!”
“At first we had growing pains, you know, and there was quite a bit of resistance,” Yvonne said.
The pair started with no money and just a few participants on Main Street.
“Six of us dressed in African clothes and beating drums said, this is the Africa in April festival,” David said.
The Aceys ran the festival mostly out of their own pockets for 10 years, completely free to the public. The first investment came from Mayor Dick Hackett in 1991 – for $5,000. Today, sponsors include FedEx, the Tennessee Arts Commission and Memphis Tourism.
“I think while the fire was burning, you know, they were burned. And when they saw the meaning and the message and the medium, those people joined us and we appreciate them,” Yvonne said.
Today, thousands of people visit Africa in April. The festival emphasizes African education, culture, music and fashion. The Aceys want African Americans to know their impact and not owe everything to other cultures.
“No one can identify you and explain you, you have to identify yourself and figure out who you are and that comes with culture, education and understanding,” Yvonne said.
“I wanted our people to know that we are somebody, that we did everything against all odds. One hand tied behind our back, and we still stand up,” David said.
Africa in April runs from April 20 to April 24. Friday is Children’s and Elderly Day. Saturday focuses on health, wellness and community. Sunday is International Music Day. Tickets are $10.