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African-American History Comes Alive at Philipsburg Manor’s Pinkster Festival

May 20, 2006

Joyce Gilliam Brown, standing on an old millstone, tells a story at the 2005 Pinkster FestivalInspired by the grand cross-cultural springtime celebrations enslaved Africans created during colonial times (pictured: Joyce Gilliam Brown, standing on an old millstone, tells a story at last year’s Pinkster Festival), the Philipsburg Manor community will host its annual Pinkster Festival on Sunday, May 21, 2006.

Dancing, drumming, African folktales, and native food prepared by Chef Al-Amin are featured at Pinkster, and dramatic storytelling performances will take place throughout the day. Traditional African instruments and tools will also be on display, and the day culminates in the crowning of a Pinkster King.

During the colonial era, Pinkster was a joyous, festive occasion that celebrated the arrival of spring. For the African community riven by enslavement, it was a profound occasion that offered a chance for family members and friends, many of whom were split off and spread out from each other, to come together.

“It was a chance for people, especially those forced to toil in rural, isolated areas, to get together, to see their own relatives and friends,” said Thom Thacker, site director for Philipsburg Manor, one of six living history museums in the Historic Hudson Valley network.

Pinkster was also unusual in that both Africans and Europeans took part in the festivities, which featured some elements of role reversal among the races. The enslaved community, for example, would “roast” their white owners during the festival. At Philipsburg’s Pinkster Festival, one of the day’s highlights is the annual Pinkster parade and the crowning of the Pinkster King, a tradition from northeast colonial times, when respected members of the African community held symbolic power over the whole community.

Before the parade and later in the afternoon will be two “Grand Events,” theatrical presentations that dramatize the pageantry of colonial Pinkster celebrations. The first “Grand Event” illustrates the good-natured, competitive side of the Festival as the Pinkster King, Kwajo, uses wordplay in a game of tall tales as he squares off against a local tenant farmer, Mr. Davenport. The final “Grand Event” asks for visitors to help elect next year’s Pinkster leader.

African-inspired drumming and dance will be led by Kazi Oliver, dancing by the Children of Dahomey will be led by Judith Samuel, J. Gilliam Brown will tell African folktales, and Cheryl Thomas will demonstrate traditional African instruments and wares.

“Pinkster” comes from the Dutch word for Pentecost and was originally a Dutch spring holiday that combined religious and secular traditions. But despite the holiday’s Dutch origins, Africans in New York and New Jersey were so successful at incorporating their own cultures into the celebration that by the early 1800s Pinkster was actually considered an African-American holiday.

Philipsburg Manor continues to attract national attention for its new interpretive focus on the little-known story of slavery in the north during the colonial period. The site’s tours and programs reflect the daily lives of the 23 enslaved individuals known to have lived and labored there. Philipsburg Manor is the country’s only fully staffed living history museum to focus on the history of northern slavery.

Admission to Philipsburg Manor is $10 for adults; $9 for seniors; $6 for children 5-17; and free for children under 5 and HHV members. Philipsburg Manor, an Historic Hudson Valley site, is at 381 North Broadway (Route 9) in Sleepy Hollow. For information: 914-631-3992, www.hudsonvalley.org.



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