Odunde founder recalls the festival's early days in new memoir

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Lois Fernandez, 80, founder of the Odunde Festival, which will be held Sunday for the 41st year.

MUCH HAS BEEN written about how Lois Fernandez started the Odunde Festival in 1975 with a measly $100 grant.

Since those early days, the African street festival that takes place annually along South Street has morphed into one of the largest celebrations of its kind in the country. (The 41st Odunde celebration is set for Sunday, beginning at 10 a.m.)

But I've always been curious about how Fernandez, who presided over that first gathering with her daughter strapped to her back, had the courage and vision to try to create something that has come to be seen as the city's unofficial summer kickoff.

Back then, she was a cash-strapped single mother of two working as a social worker trying to stop South Philly street gangs from engaging in violence. Fernandez had no experience in event organizing, and nothing to fall on besides her grit and determination to create a culturally relevant celebration for young African Americans.

Not only did she achieve that, but she's managed to help keep it going for more than four decades, long after similar events such as Unity Day have disappeared. It's an inspiring story and one I always wanted to write about, but never did.

Thanks to folklorist Debora Kodish, Fernandez has shared it herself in a new memoir called simply Recollections (Part One). Kodish, who formerly headed the Philadelphia Folklore Project, worked with Fernandez for the better part of a year, interviewing her and preparing transcripts that they pored over together.

On Friday, Kodish and Fernandez will host their first book signing at City Hall, inside the Mayor's Reception Room at 7 p.m. (A second book-signing will take place Saturday at 1 p.m. at the African-American Museum at Seventh and Arch Streets.)

Recollections is written in Fernandez's down-home, folksy, rambling voice, and takes you back to how things used to be in black Philadelphia during the 1940s and 1950s, when most everyone was poor but didn't think of themselves that way. She was one of 10 children and sickly, due to a bout with rheumatic fever.

After leaving South Philadelphia High School for Girls, she worked at the Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot (now the Defense Logistics Agency) as a clerk typist, earning $52.50 a week - not a bad beginning for a young black girl at the time. Fernandez was able to buy her first house in 1963 on Fernon Street.

Fernandez's black consciousness evolved along with the nation's during the rise of the Black Power Movement. Then, as now, she was just ahead of the curve, as the saying goes. In 1961, she cut off her hair and went natural, prompting her mother to exclaim, "You can't go to that white man's job with hair looking like this."

Fernandez became acquainted with the Yoruba religion in 1963 after meeting some Nigerians at the YMCA on Christian Street.

"I mean, I grew up an Episcopalian! A high Episcopalian. We were talking about the blood of Jesus Christ and we were drinking wine at Communion time. But they were talking real sacrifice, animal sacrifice, when they made sacrifice!" Fernandez says in Recollections.

By the 1970s, she was working with the Department of Public Welfare and focusing on youth gangs in South Philly, trying to stop them from feuding. Around that time, she got the idea for Odunde, which means "happy new year."

"And they said, 'Ain't gonna let nobody go across that bridge, shut off that bridge and let y'all walk to the river,' " Fernandez says in Recollections. "And you think you gonna throw something in that river? You are out of your mind. ..."

"People made fun of her," recalled her daughter Oshunbumi, who now serves as Odunde's executive director. "They said, 'Go ahead with that African s---.' "

Despite all the negative pushback, that early Odunde did take place as scheduled - on a cool day in April. Festivalgoers made their now-annual ceremonial processional to the South Street Bridge to pay homage to the Yoruba goddess of the river, Oshun.

"They came out and looked at us coming up their streets because we had the drummers. We were making noise," Fernandez says in the book. "It wasn't a big crowd. I don't know, maybe it was, like total maybe 50 of us. But there we come in their neighborhood with our drums, with our African clothing on, singing. ..."

That first year's festival was on just one block, the 2200 block of South. After that, there was no looking back for Fernandez, who would have more than her share of battles and tough times over the next 40 years obtaining permits and funding, and also dealing with hostile neighbors.

"I still think there are people in the neighborhood who see it as a nuisance," said Al Butler, a longtime festivalgoer who has an annual open-house timed to coincide with Odunde. "The people who tend to complain about it have been there that long."

This year's festival will stretch along South from 20th to 23rd Streets. Sponsors include the National Endowment for the Arts, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and others.

Yes, Odunde has come a long way since Fernandez got that initial $100 grant.

armstrj@phillynews.com

@JeniceArmstrong Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen