This February, children will dance to the beat at Newport’s Black History Festival. The celebration will include an interactive African drumming concert, crafts, games, student presentations and snacks. The day is free and open to the community.

The celebration, which is in its first year, will be held at Emmanuel Day School (EDS) on Newport on Feb. 23 from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. The event is a collaboration of Emmanuel Church, EDS, Common Fence Music’s Connecting the Beats program, Sankofa Community Connection, student groups, parents and artists.

“Newport celebrates St. Patrick’s Day across the city; we should also be embracing African culture and black history,” said Olga Enger, the event organizer and EDS parent. “If we want a future beyond racism, we need to embrace diversity as a community. How can I teach my son these values if it’s just his mother’s rhetoric?”

Niko Merritt, founding executive director of Sankofa community Connection, said celebrating black culture in Newport is long overdue.

“What took us so long?” asked Merritt. “There was a time when one in four of Newport residents was of African descent, according to census data. We no longer make up 25 percent of the community, but we have a strong presence here that should no longer be overlooked. There is so
much that we could take pride in, that is never spoken about.”

At the festival, Meritt will lead a collaborative art project, inspired by Alma Woodsey Thomas, an African-American Expressionist painter and art educator. Once completed, the piece will be available for display by local organizations.

The African drumming ensemble Kalfou is led by Kera Washington, Senior Music Performance Faculty in African Diasporic Drumming and Director of Yanvalou at Wellesley College and part-time music teacher. In addition to drumming, Washington is a trained African dancer.

“We are honored to be part of this collaborative community event,” said Tom Perrotti of Common Fence Music, who coordinated the music for the festival. Funded with a grant provided by the Rhode Island Foundation Newport County Fund, Connecting the Beats brings African- inspired drumming and dance to local youth. “The program combines lessons in life, music and cross-cultural communication. Students are introduced to Southern New England’s newer African and Caribbean neighbors through direct interactions, as opposed to textbook lessons,” said Perrotti.

The celebration will be hosted under the roof of Emmanuel Church, which has a long history as a meeting place for community organizations. The church began in 1841, as a mission of Newport’s Trinity Church, when three women parishioners recognized the need to offer free space for worship to people who could not afford to rent or own a pew.

“Emmanuel has always been known as ‘the church of the people’ where people of all backgrounds and socio economic status gather together as friends to pray and help their neighbors in need,” said The Rev. Dr. Anita Louise Schell of Emmanuel.

The event will be held on Feb. 23 from 11-2 p.m. at Emmanuel Church, located at 42 Dearborn Street. Free parking is available in the lot across the street. The festival is free and open to the public. For questions or to volunteer please contact Olga Enger at or her mobile at 401.864.3403. More information is available on the event’s Facebook page: