Trenton residents show off their African-American pride with all-day festival in Cadwalader Park

Published: Sunday, August 21, 2011,  8:14 AM
Matt Fair/The Times By Matt Fair/The TimesThe Times, Trenton
TRENTON — For 75 years, lifelong city resident Edith Savage-Jennings has been working as a civil rights activist, having gotten her start helping to integrate the movie theaters downtown in the 1930s when she was just 12 years old.

While she went on to help desegregate schools and register black voters in Mississippi in the 1960s and to call the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, personal friends, she said she saw something in Trenton’s Cadwalader Park yesterday that she’d never seen before.

“Aren’t you proud to be black today?” she asked, speaking into a microphone to a crowd gathered down the hill from the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie Mansion. “This is truly a great day for Trenton,” she said.

The occasion was the city’s first African-American Pride Festival, an event that drew throngs of residents for a day of food, music and dance. It was an effort to bring a renewed measure of unity and pride to the black community, organizers said.

Now 87, Savage-Jennings got her start as a civil rights activist in 1936 as a member of the youth division of the city’s NAACP chapter when she and a dozen friends took up seats in the whites-only section of a downtown movie theater. When the theater’s management asked them to move upstairs to a section reserve for blacks, they refused. It was a strong enough statement to end segregated seating at the theater.

“After that, they never bothered us again,” Savage-Jennings said.

It’s that kind of unity and pride, that ability to work together, that she wants to see revived in the city’s black community in 2011, she said. “You only get what you give,” she said. “If you do everything you can to help your city, we can make Trenton what it used to be.”

The event was organized by groups and activists including the Trenton Downtown Association, New Life Christian Center, Fork in the Road LLC, and Minding Our Business.

The effort attracted a slew of residents to lend a hand setting up. According to festival spokeswoman Yolanda Robinson, nearly 100 volunteers came out to help ensure that the event went smoothly.

“I think it really inspired people,” she said of the outpouring. “It gave them a sense of pride, something to call their own.”

There were musical performances from gospel singer Christawn and choirs from the city’s Union Baptist and Deliverance churches, African drumming from Egun Omode and Wise Intelligence, and a reading from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech by Trenton Central High School teacher and author Jack Washington.

Mayor Tony Mack walked through the crowd greeting supporters and well-wishers.

“This is one of my proudest moments as mayor of the city of Trenton,” he said. “For years, the African-American community has talked about putting on an event but it never really came to fruition. So today marks a milestone for the city of Trenton and I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

Mack said the city worked with the organizers to make sure the park facilities would be ready to handle such a large crowd.

“We tried to be good neighbors to a group that had a vision for our city,” Mack said. “That’s what it’s going to take to turn the city around, different groups working together.”

A number of local businesses set up tables throughout the park, including Michael Brooks, owner of a printing shop on Riverside Avenue. Brooks, along with several members of his family, were selling custom, screen-printed T-shirts.

Brooks, a lifelong Trenton resident and former basketball star at Trenton Central High School in 1980, said he was glad to see the black community bonding together in a way he hadn’t seen in years.

“From my point of view, we need to revitalize the black community and show we can work together,” he said. “We’re not just fighting and shooting and killing each other.”

Brooks said the black community has too often — and unfairly — been stereotyped by negative stories of gun violence, gangs, poverty and drugs.

“But as you can see it’s not like that,” he said. “We’re all here together.”

Savage-Jennings said the type of togetherness she saw at the gathering yesterday was the type she wants to see carried forward for new generations of black Trentonians. The festival, she added, reminded her of times long past, when churches in the community would host family picnics in parks throughout the city.

“This reminds me of them. The old days, as we call it,” she said. “We need to continue this, for the children’s sake. It’s way long overdue.”

Organizers said they want the African-American Pride Festival to be an annual event, and they hope to make it a week-long event next year instead of just one day.

Contact Matt Fair at or at (609) 989-5717.