Phoenix Fest attracts large crowds in celebration of Hayti community

By Brianna Rolfe

Carolyn Brewer (left), an “unofficial dancing diva,” dressed in festive attire. Brewer has been attending the festival for three years. Marcia Saltz (right), is a friend of Brewer’s and was experiencing the festival for the first time this year.

UNC Staff Writer
the Durham VOICE

Thousands came out to support friends and family, dance and cheer, indulge in foods, but most importantly to celebrate the legacy of Durham’s Hayti community at the 11th annual Phoenix Fest October 6.

Denise Hester, founder of the Phoenix Fest, said, “We saw about 10,000 people attend this year.”

The idea for the Phoenix Fest began 20 years ago when the Hayti community was virtually destroyed by urban renewal. Since that time, citizens have been trying to preserve what remains, according to Hester.

The parade began at 9 a.m. on Elmira Avenue and ended at Piedmont Avenue where the food and business vendors were. Festivities lasted until 6 p.m.


The Festival

Hester and her husband began holding the Phoenix Fest to pay tribute to ancestors from years past. It also gives small businesses the opportunity to make money and promote their goods. “We receive overwhelming support from the community,” said Hester. “If you have large family, things are expensive like going to concerts but the festival is very accessible with free entertainment, and people can attend for free and spend their money on the vendors and support local businesses.”

People of all ages come to the event. “People have grown with it. You see people who were there as babies and are now teenagers,” said Hester. The festival is similar to a family or high school reunion where there is a return to old community and it gives people an opportunity to rekindle old relationships, according to Hester.

Lisa Thomas, a resident of Durham, was at the event in support of her son who was in the parade. “My son is on the drum line at Lowe’s Grove Middle School. We just moved here from Raleigh, so it is the first year I am attending.”

Unlike Thomas, some festival goers have been coming for years. Carolyn Brewer, 73, has been in attendance for the past three years. She said she especially enjoyed seeing the Hillside High School marching band come through the parade. “I graduated Hillside in 1957 and played the clarinet in the band,” she said. She was dressed head to toe in festive clothing for the event and called herself a part of the “unofficial group of dancing divas.”

Marcia Saltz was also at the festival with Brewer but said this was her first year at the festival because she had just recently moved to Durham.

Festival attendees browsed through multiple vendors after watching the parade. The vendors ranged from a booth giving temporary tattoos to food vendors selling fried butter.

Dr. Regina George-Bowden (left), is a volunteer and was at the Phoenix Fest helping Denise Hester (right), the event organizer, at the talent registration tent.

J.A. Person, an artist from Manson, had a booth set up selling his artwork and jewelry. Person does drawings that reflect from an African art form. “ I have had a booth here for the last three years,” said Person. “When I don’t do paintings, I do jewelry and make African woodwork to get the creative juices flowing.”

Person set up his booth to emulate a living room to allow people to picture what a painting would look like in their own home. He also uses all natural materials for his jewelry, and each painting he creates has a specific meaning behind it.

The booths and vendors attracted large crowds this year, similar to previous years, according to Hester. Hester said she typically sees crowds between 10,000 and 15,000 each year.


Hester and her husband built the Phoenix Crossing Shopping Center to house businesses that she said were forced to close during the urban renewal. It gave these businesses a permanent home.

Rising from the ashes, like the Phoenix bird, the Hayti community rose from destruction to become a more thriving community, said Hester. The annual Phoenix Fest and its celebration of Hayti history is a derivation of this mythology.

Hayti has a dual legacy of both business and entertainment. The current era of the community reflects this with the growing businesses and growth of entertainment that pays tribute to African music.


Music and Entertainment

At this year’s festival there was a mix of blues, jazz, gospel, R&B and hip-hop music.

Hillside High School Marching Band participates in the parade every year. They were able to excite the crowd and get everyone moving as they came through playing instruments and dancing.

There were four headlining performers at the festival including: Bobby Hinton, who plays blues; Dezrick Dixon, who sings gospel; Sista One, who plays hip-hop; and Family Sircle, whose specialty is R&B.

The music radiated throughout the whole street while those attending the festival watched the performances and danced along to the music.


Food and Drink

As people migrated from the parade area to the vendor and entertainment area, food venders began serving the festival goers.

Bandido’s Mexican Café, located in Durham, had a booth selling tacos and nachos. A booth by the name of “Manna” was also set up selling Philly steaks and various other food options.

One booth at the festival had a handle on all things fried. The food ranged from fried butter to fried Twinkies and Oreos, as well as funnel cakes, a staple of almost any festival.