CLEWISTON —The Brown Sugar Festival, an annual festival held in the Harlem Community, celebrates African and West Indian heritage. Not only does this festival work to spread local awareness and appreciation of Black heritage, the event also raises funds to assist in sending Black students to college.
“About 20 years before my teaching years, I founded the Brown Sugar Festival in the Harlem community. We started out as a grassroots organization that caught on fire,” said Gwen Patrick Griffiths, who was born and raised in Clewiston. “In it’s inception we gave away free food to kids, produced a beauty pageant, a parade, set up booths and provided entertainment for a Saturday.”
Griffiths said the project started out as a single day event, but now the Brown Sugar festival is a week long celebration. It takes place in Harlem during the first week of May.
“I grew up in Harlem, I was there during integration. It was hard, but we made it,” said Henrietta Burns. “We had a few good teachers who helped us. They knew it was hard for us Black kids. Most of us grew up and moved away, most still do that. But I always come back to Harlem for Brown Sugar.”
Harlem, located at the edge of nearly 440,000 acres of sugar cane in the Everglades Agricultural Area, originated in the 1920s as a camp for Black sugar cane workers. Many of the houses in the community were built by its own residents under a federal grant program in the 1970’s.
By celebrating heritage and creative expression through dance, music, theater, education, folk arts, visual arts, media and literary arts, the organizers of the festival aim to lift up the community while supporting education.
The festival has been extremely successful, and under Griffith’s presidency over $100,000 in scholarships has been awarded to students from Hendry County.
“Even in my retired days the organization is strong and vibrant with excellent leadership. We’ve been doing this for more than forty years,” Griffiths added.
After 42 years of operation more than $200,000 in scholarship funds have been donated.
Unfortunately, the festival’s organizers are unsure of whether or not they will be able to hold the event this year, with due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For updates and more information about the Brown Sugar Festival, visit: www.brownsugarfestival.com