Phoenix Fest celebrates rich African-American Hayti history

Oct. 05, 2013 @ 08:20 PM

Cheerleaders shaking their pom-poms, leather-vested motorcycle riders and track-spinning DJs lined up before 9 a.m. Saturday, preparing to kick off the 12th annual Phoenix Festival.

The community celebration pays homage to the Hayti community of Durham, the once thriving business and residential district that was dubbed “Black Wall Street” by Booker T. Washington.

As families lined up across from James E. Shepard Magnet Middle School along Dakota Street, Joy Morgan, Phoenix Fest’s organizer, said the event is a way for neighbors to positively give back to the community through floats, bands and dance routines.

“I go to all the parades and get ideas,” Morgan said. “I’ve been a parade lover since I’ve been little, and I never grew up.”

She has organized the parade for a decade, taking over the responsibility from friends. She said they’ll line up people running for office, motorcycle clubs and nonprofits for the parade every year.

She described the old Hayti community surrounding N.C. Central University as once flourishing and full of inspiring leaders, such as James E. Shepard, NCCU’s founder, who established some of Durham’s large African-American financial institutions, and C.C. Spaulding, a leader of the N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Co.

The Hayti district fell after manufacturing dropped off in the 1930s followed by tobacco in the 1960s, according to a Duke history analysis.

Men and women on motorcycles had their leather vests and helmets on, ready for the cue to make their way down Dakota Street. The Throttle Hawks, a motorcycle group based out of Durham, was participating for its third year in the parade.

Martricia Degree has been riding for a year and says it’s an adrenaline rush when she’s on her Suzuki 750. She said her group tries to break the stigma surrounding motorcycle groups, when people think they’re just a “gang.”

“It’s great exposure,” Degree said of Phoenix Fest. “People get to see you doing positive things for the community.”

This year, Elite Dance of Durham put together a float covered in white and orange plastic circles. About 20 children, ranging from 3 years old to teens, sat on the float, surrounding a giant constructed star in matching “Elite Dance” shirts.

Makaylah Parker, 7, jumped up and danced around with her friends as a DJ’s pickup truck eased past them.

When asked what she was going to do at the parade, she said she was going to wave at the crowd. “I’m going to smile,” she added.

Her mom, Paula Pugh-Parker, said her daughter is in her second year learning cheerleading and cheer hip hop, and it’s a positive extracurricular.

Drumline members and dancers from Baltimore, Md., The New Baltimore Twilighters, drove six hours to take part in the parade.

As people began to ease toward Fayetteville Street, the drummers slammed their mallets into the sides of their bass drums. The dancers waved gold pom-poms over their heads to the beat.

Across the street, Lucy Harris, 60, watched the band go by from her front porch. She said it’s like her personal Macy’s Day Parade each year.

“It’s always early morning and the drums wake us up and let us know it’s on its way,” Harris said.