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Africa in April festival founders celebrate 35 years

Thousands visit Africa in April in historic Robert R. Church Park every year, but its roots are humble.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Africa in April festival is set to return to Robert R. Church Park. This will be the 35th year of the annual celebration, started by David and Yvonne Acey. 

The festival is a celebration of African culture, music, education and fashion. Thousands visit Africa in April in historic Robert R. Church Park every year, but its roots are humble.

David and Yvonne Acey met at LeMoyne Owen College. David was an Orange Mound native playing basketball, swimming and running track and field. Despite his athletic success, he said meeting Yvonne was the real reward.

"The best thing ever happened to me at LeMoyne, I met my wife 45 years ago and we’ve been together ever since," David said.

After leaving LeMoyne and a short stint in the army, David returned to Memphis to attend then-Memphis State. He received an undergraduate degree and helped start the Black Student Association on Memphis State's campus. 

Returning for his master's, David said the communication department asked him to join and teach. 

"And I told them, 'I don't want to teach none of this white mess. I want to teach something black.' They said, 'well, we don't have any courses.' I said 'I'll write them,'" David said. 

David went on to teach at the University of Memphis for 40 years and wrote the first Black Rhetoric course at Memphis. He'd go on to implement other black studies programs as well.

Yvonne, while at LeMoyne-Owen College, got involved with Marion Barry, who became mayor in Washington D.C. They pursued civil rights and voter registration. 

The pair's activism didn't stop once they married. The pair started the Africa in April Festival in 1986.

"So what are we gonna call it?" David remembers asking Yvonne. "She said, Africa in April Cultural Awareness Festival, bam!"

"We at first had growing pains, you know, and there were quite a bit of resistance," Yvonne said.

The pair started with no money and just a few participants on Main Street.

"Six of us dressed in African clothes and beating drums said, this is the Africa in April festival," David said.

The Aceys ran the festival out of mostly their own pockets for 10 years completely free to the public. The first investment came from Mayor Dick Hackett in 1991 -- for $5,000. Today, sponsors include FedEx, the Tennessee Arts Commission and Memphis Tourism.

"I think as the fire was burning, you know, they got burned. And when they saw the meaning, and the message and the medium, these people joined us and we appreciate them," Yvonne said.

Today, thousands visit Africa in April. The festival emphasizes African education, culture, music and fashion. The Aceys want African-Americans to know their impact and that they don't owe everything to other cultures.

"Nobody can identify and explain for you, you have to identify yourself and determine who you are and that comes with culture, education and understanding," Yvonne said.

"I wanted our people to know that we are somebody, that we have done everything against the odds. One hand tied behind our back, and still we rise," David said.

Africa in April runs from April 20 to April 24. Friday is Children and Seniors Day. Saturday focuses on Health, Wellness and Community. Sunday is the International Music Day. Tickets are $10.

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