The 16th Annual African American Festival Audience Packs Promenade Park

Sojourner’s Truth Staff

It was a sight to behold!! By the time this year’s African American Festival opened at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday afternoon at Promenade Park, hundreds of spectators had already taken their seats –  outside of the Park on Summit Street – to listen to the music: to the blues, the gospel, the jazz, the hip hop, the old school R & B – that was about to play for the next eight hours.

Shirley Murdock

Inside the Park, thousands of spectators arrived unusually early – much earlier than in the previous 15 years of the festival – to hear the music, to peruse the vendors’ tents, to sample the edibles from the food trucks.

After a year of pandemic-imposed isolation, Toledoans seemed anxious to bust out, socialize and resume their normal lives.

The entrance gates were busy all day as the thousands lined up to enter and be entertained.

Every year the Festival entertainment, sponsored by the Toledo Urban Federal Credit Union (TUFCU), is superb and this year was no exception. What was exceptional was the return of Toledo’s prodigal son … and daughter. And the audience was more than eager to welcome them home. Singers Lyfe Jennings and Shirley Murdock, both had not returned in more than a year, were also honored with keys to the city by Toledo officials.

Jennings, an R&B singer and songwriter, grew up in Toledo, though he currently lives in Atlanta. He has previously performed at the Stranahan and other local venues.

Shirley Murdock, also an R&B singer and songwriter, cannot remember a time when she couldn’t sing. She always thought that she’d be a gospel singer, “singing like a grown woman ever since I was a little girl” in church choirs. She attended Toledo’s Calvary Baptist Church and graduated from St. Ursula Academy. Murdock has resided in Dayton for a number of years but, before the pandemic, returned to Toledo several times a year to visit relatives.

Saturday’s lineup also included Jay Rush, Bobby G, Lakeside, Tim Cunningham and Darius Coleman. The Zapp Band was the closing act but the rain – which had interrupted the entertainment early on after Bobby G’s set, and then abated – returned with a fury late at night, along with lightning, as the Zapp Band was just starting.

For Suzette Cowell, CEO and treasurer of TUFCU and the person who has organized these festivals over the years and selected the talent, the highlight of the afternoon and evening was the way Lyle Jennings interacted with the audience. Another highlight of his performance was his duo with Jay Rush, his brother. It was the first time the brothers have performed on stage together.

As wonderful as the entertainment was during the event, the audience turnout and reaction was nothing short of astonishing. They arrived early and arrived all day long. The food vendors were overwhelmed by the demand and sold out of virtually everything.

They stayed through the midafternoon cloud burst and kept arriving after those clouds had passed. And came, said Cowell, from all over Toledo, from Detroit and Cleveland, from Ann Arbor and Saginaw, from Nashville (because notwithstanding all the music in that town, they don’t have quite the same opportunity that this African American Festival presents). Some visitors, she noted, flew in from Florida.

This year’s Festival was sponsored by the City of Toledo, the Lucas County Commissioners, Fifth Third Bank, ProMedica, the Area Office on Aging, the House of Day, Quality Time, The Blade, the Journal and The Truth.