On Saturday, Ald. Emma Mitts hosted her annual 37th Ward Gospel & Back-to-School Festival at LaFollette Park, 1333 North Laramie for the 20th consecutive year. This time, however, was different. Hours into the fest, Lori Lightfoot — the first African American female and openly gay mayor — ascended the stage.
“When I came here during the campaign, what did I tell you? That I would not forget the West Side,” the mayor said. “And we are working hard every day with Ald. Mitts and other elected officials to make sure we can bring resources to the West Side.”
For Catherine Jones, a longtime advocate for Douglass High School, 543 N. Waller Ave., and member of the Austin Community Action Council who has been attending the fest for the last 20 years, Mitts’ annual event is a microcosm of Lightfoot’s purported mission.
“I keep returning each year because I want to let the parents know that they have a voice,” said Jones as she sat at a table strewn with literature promoting Douglass and other educational initiatives. “People come here for the resources and for the hope.”
Camille Gant, the site director at the YMCA Orr Family Development Center, 730 N. Pulaski Rd., said that she’s been coming to the fest for the last “six or seven years.”
“They have tremendous opportunities and resources here and they also provide great meals for the seniors and the community,” Gant said. “We also like to recruit from this location. We’re not far from here.”
Liz Abunaw, the owner of Forty Acres Fresh Market, said that the fest provided her with an opportunity to sell her fresh produce — including collard greens, onions, avocados and lemons, among other items.
Dessiaray Hayes, 51, stood near Abunaw’s table eyeing some of the produce, a peach cobbler from MacArthur’s Restaurant in hand.
Hayes, who just moved to the West Side from the North Side several months ago, said that she’s brought her children to the fest for years.
“I’ve been going to Mitts events for my daughter, she’s 31 years old now,” Hayes said. “I still got school supplies from when she was younger. Now I got grandbabies, so I’m doing the same thing with them.”
Hayes said that she comes for the supplies and, of course, the Gospel music. And on Saturday, there was an abundance of it — from Willie Wilson to the White Brothers.
As she sat under a tent, Mitts — who described herself as a rabid Gospel fan — reflected on the fest’s two decades.
“Our history is Gospel,” she said, adding that there have been no incidents of violence or any major disruptions at the fest over the course of its history. “I grew up on Gospel and I love the Gospel. It does something for your soul. If you’re depressed, you put some Gospel on and it calms your spirit.”
Congressman Danny K. Davis, who lives on the West Side, said that he’s been coming to Mitts’ fest each year since it was first held. Davis said that he and Mitts are bonded by their native land — Arkansas.
“People from Arkansas gravitate towards each other when they discover that they’re from Arkansas,” Davis said. “This event is nice. It’s laid back. No hustle and bustle. People just enjoy themselves. Gospel is part of Emma’s heritage.”
Moments after Lightfoot arrived, Mitts told the crowd of hundreds that the mayor’s birthday was Aug. 4, prompting a Gospel-infused rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday.”
“People are always happy when you have resources and fun,” Mitts said. “This is just time for people to come together.”