Archived Story

Festival celebrates racial unity

Published 10:23pm Thursday, August 5, 2010


Niles Daily Star

When James Douglas Suggs passed away in 1955, the life and stories of the former slave could easily have been forgotten.

But his daughter Martha Suggs Spencer would not let it happen.

“My dad passed away and the Suggs name vanished,” she said. “That influenced me to do some research on my own.”

That research has led to a 30-year journey into her family’s history that is richly diverse. Suggs discovered she has both black and white relatives. She has traced her white relatives back to England and the black side back to the slave ships.

“I found out the black Suggs lived with the white Suggs in the same household in Mississippi in the 1870s,” she said.

It’s that unity that inspired Spencer to begin the Suggs Freedom Festival in Vandalia in 1994. It’s been taking place annually ever since with this year’s festival set to begin today at noon at the Underground Railroad Museum, 60354 Main St. in Vandalia.

“The theme for the festival is just that — unity between black and white,” she said. “It’s to bring blacks and whites together and let them know everyone should get along.”

Spencer said while black history is important, it’s not just African-Americans who should study it.

“They keep talking about black history,” she said. “But the whites also had a major part in it. If it wasn’t for whites, blacks would still be in slavery. A lot of whites were murdered to bring our freedom.”

Spencer wrote a book, titled “Suggs Black Backtracks,” about her family history and the stories of her father in 1995.

During her research for the books, she discovered the passion her father had for racial unity, which Spencer is now dedicated to carrying on.

The three-day festival begins at noon today and continues through Sunday. Activities will include poetry readings, songs, dance, food and tours of the museum. They will also pay tribute to all those who lost their lives in the Civil Rights Movement.

The festival is free but all donations will support the Underground Railroad Museum, which has artifacts dating back to the 1800s.

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