East St Louis IL event will highlight Black owned businesses

Courtney Woolery was born and raised in Springfield, Illinois. Although her hometown is about an hour’s drive from East St. Louis, she remembers the numerous occasions her family traveled to town just for fun.

“My mom came here to eat Chinese food (and) my mom went downstairs to have a good time,” said Woolery, who now lives in Cahokia after living in East St. Louis for six years. “It’s always been something we’ve traveled – I’ve lived in 10 states and I have a military mother – East St. Louis was always the place she came back to, and so did my family. “

Woolery wants those memories and experiences to continue to exist in East St. Louis, which is why they are hosting the city’s first Black Woodstock Festival to promote black-owned businesses. She doesn’t want East St. Louis to be overlooked because of the stigma associated with the city.

“You can have a good time in East St. Louis and it doesn’t have to end in bloodshed,” said Woolery, 31. “You don’t have to look over your shoulder.”

Create a new Black Wall Street

The Black Woodstock Festival will take place on Sunday, April 18 from 2:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at 8221 State St., East St. Louis and will feature 54 black-owned companies. While most of the highlighted companies are based in East St. Louis, others are in cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Memphis, among others.

Woolery came up with the idea of ​​starting the festival last year after learning about Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Black Wall Street, which was destroyed during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. For two days, a crowd of white residents attacked the city’s famous Greenwood neighborhood for an economically thriving black community.

East St. Louis experienced its own racial violence just four years before the Tulsa Race Massacre. During the 1917 East St. Louis Race Riots, white people inflicted terror on black residents of the area. The uprising was in part a response to growing black economic development and political influence in the city.

With the Black Woodstock Festival, Woolery said she wanted to bring that advancement back to East St. Louis. She saw the diversity of East St. Louis businesses after attending vendor events last year through her Tipsy Tequila mobile liquor business.

“You could find people doing all sorts of things, be it cooking, selling, roofing, or anything in the black community, and we just noticed that,” said Woolery. “We attended a variety of vendor events last year and saw how we all come together. As a company, we really wanted to be a big part of it and host our own event. That was pretty much the motivation – just to revive the Black Wall Street movement in East St. Louis because it means a lot to us. “

According to the town clerk’s office, there are 226 companies in East St. Louis, excluding those that applied for business licenses earlier this year. East St. Louis Mayor Robert Eastern III plans to bring more businesses to the area, and he said the Black Woodstock Festival is a good place to start in creating more awareness of the city’s economic potential.

Since last year, the Eastern office has been working with local residents to clean up town-wide to beautify East St. Louis. In addition, the city recently partnered with Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville to apply for a $ 20 million grant through the WK Kellogg Foundation aimed at eradicating racial inequalities around the world. Eastern said building the area’s economic base was part of the grant. Eastern does not expect to hear about the city’s application status until this summer, but said it is eager to find other resources for the city’s economic development if those aren’t allocated.

“We were once called the All-American City, East St. Louis. My goal is to become All-American or become a unified city,” Eastern said of the festival. “I think when you have these types of events and the parallels with the cleanup initiatives with different partners in the community, especially citizens, it shows that we are turning a curb and people are getting more and more excited to be a part of it new black renaissance here in East St. Louis. “

Eastern hopes the event on Sunday will encourage more people to move their businesses to East St. Louis.

“This should be a welcoming platform for people who are enjoying their city and are able to bring commerce to the city,” Eastern said. “In addition, the paradigm of negative stigma that we have here in the city is presented in a positive light.”

Paradigm Shift in East St. Louis

Gaybriel Rockett owns Flow Presents, an event production and marketing company. The company, which will be featured during the Black Woodstock Festival, recently expanded its services to include custom design. During the event, she will be selling clothes from her Black on Black Love brand, which has started to bring more positivity to the city.

“I live out of town near abandoned houses and things like that … and the black-on-black crime popped into my head,” Rockett said. “I wanted to kind of change the narrative so it’s just starting with clothes, but it’s definitely going to become an educational perspective with workshops and things like that just to amplify the interaction, transaction and things of that kind from black on black. ”

Rockett, a 10-year Navy veteran, left East St. Louis in 1992 and was stationed in California. In October 2020, she returned to her hometown to participate in the changes in the city.

“That’s even more of a reason I was drawn to Black Woodstock and what it means to the community, and just change the narrative and support one another,” said Rockett, who now lives in Washington Park. “It was consistent with what I was doing because black and black love helps me be seen and get used to the community I want to serve.”

Rockett, 48, plans to buy abandoned property in the area and convert it into homes for veterans and other residents. She also has plans to run for political office.

“I feel good coming out and sitting on the porch and seeing other people, but there is so much abandonment and plague in our community that I just hope what I do is what Courtney does to Black Woodstock does wiggle a few people up and encourage them to participate just a little bit harder, ”said Rockett.

Courtney Woolery hopes the festival will reflect the community collaboration that took place during the original Black Woodstock Festival, which is why she named it after the iconic music event.

“I saw it was a music festival, but the camaraderie and the way they came together for just one purpose (was powerful),” said Woolery. “When you think about what you were going through at that time, social pressures … and you wanted to break free of it. They wanted to show that they can come together, that there is peace and that they can mobilize for a cause. “

The Black Woodstock Festival (also known as the Harlem Cultural Festival) was held in the summer of 1969 to celebrate black music and pride.

“I really wanted to include that – come together in a peaceful way and just be a little rebellious, but not too much, and then bring in the Wall Street feel,” said Woolery. “We tried, but the gist is still the same. We come together to incorporate change, and if this catches on fire, it will happen in other counties and states. That’s why we really want to set the tone at the first festival. “

Woolery said she was planning another Black Woodstock Festival in July and hoped to bring it to downtown East St. Louis. She wants to hold the festival twice a year to involve as many companies as possible. First, however, she hopes people will be encouraged to make concrete changes in East St. Louis.

“I want them to see that they can use their own city and that they are needed in their own city,” said Woolery.

Entry to the Black Woodstock Festival is $ 1. The event also features live performances, food, and games. Masks are required to participate in the event.

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Help us cover East St. Louis, Cahokia, Centerville, and the surrounding communities by sharing your tips, questions, and ideas. What problems are affecting your community? What stories should we tell? What is important to you? Please share your thoughts with DeAsia Paige at [email protected] or 239-2500.

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DeAsia Paige joined the Belleville News-Democrat in 2020 as a member of the Report for America Corps. She is a community reporter covering East St. Louis and the surrounding areas. DeAsia previously interned at VICE and The Detroit Free Press. She graduated from the University of Kansas in 2020.

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