The soulful sound of gospel music emanates from the tent, the smoky scent of barbecue hangs in the muggy summer air, and children giggle as they play tag on the lush green lawn.
These familiar sights and sounds represent a homecoming of sorts.
Each year, people mark their calendars for this one weekend in August when the expansive lawn of Joplin’s Ewert Park is covered with tents, food trucks, booths, and people – people who come to reunite with old friends, celebrate their heritage, and welcome newcomers (like me) to share in some old-fashioned summertime fun.
This three-day August event is called Emancipation Park Days, and it falls on the weekend closest to August 4, which is the day designated to honor the emancipation of the American slave in Joplin, as well as in neighboring towns.
Since the 1920s, this gathering has been held annually at Ewert Park. This year, the event’s schedule was jam-packed, from Friday evening through Sunday evening, with family-friendly events, including gospel and funk music, a basketball tournament, a fun run/walk, a variety of kids’ activities (including free swimming at Ewert Pool), a car show, a Sunday church service, and – like any great festival – plenty of food and drinks (even a beer tent).
There was no room for boredom at this cultural affair.
Which is exactly why my friend Julie and I brought our youngest kids here. With a couple weeks left until the beginning of school, we wanted to make some unique and fun memories with them before summer ended.
We came to Emancipation Park Days on Saturday, the second day of the event. While the August sky was heavy with clouds, the rain stayed away while we were there, allowing us to linger in the comfortably shaded park.
The first thing our kids did was the children’s drum craft; they wrapped masking tape around empty plastic coffee containers, then then personalized their drums with their own drawings.
Then they scored some cute balloon dogs from Crazy Dave’s Balloon Animals.
Our kids were having a blast with their loot, but I have to admit, we mamas were running out of arms to carry said loot – and we’d only visited two booths by that point.
We lingered awhile at the Bikers Against Child Abuse (B.A.C.A) booth, where our kids got their faces painted (and got to sit on a bike), and Julie and I stood, mouths agape, as we learned about this amazing organization. Its mission is to empower abused children to feel safe, and its members – the bikers – do this by going to a child’s house to provide reassurance, or by accompanying a child to court and parole hearings.
It melted our hearts to hear tough-looking motorcycle bikers talking tenderly about protecting and empowering children who, without the bikers, might continue to feel powerless and voiceless. I was so impressed by B.A.C.A.’s work that I could go on and on about them, but instead I’ll just include a link about them here if you’re interested in learning more.
Now back to Emancipation Park Days.
We were all starting to get hungry at this point, so the kids snacked on hot dogs while Julie and I treated ourselves to some tender pulled pork sandwiches from A.C.’s BBQ. Naturally, the kids begged for ice cream afterward, so we got them treats from the wildly popular Pineapple Bliss. We didn’t tell them that they weren’t eating actual ice cream but a dairy-free, healthful substitute instead. They didn’t notice.
We then made our way back to the children’s pavilion so the kids could participate in the drum circle and dance that was led by members of the African Student Association from Pittsburg State University.
The kids enthusiastically tested out their coffee-tub drums that they made earlier, trying earnestly to keep up with the drum leader’s rhythm. At one point, the drum leader asked the kids to stand up and follow him in a circle while he drummed, and the kids let their bodies move to the beat as they danced.
Sweaty after all of that activity, the kids were eager to join in the water balloon toss.
After a few good tosses, their balloon burst on the ground in front of them, spraying them with a teeny bit of water – but not enough to cool them down.
Instead, a couple of slices of sweet, refreshing watermelon did the trick, quenching their thirst and providing relief from the heat.
While they snacked on the watermelon, Julie and I had the chance to read the display walls featuring a timeline of black history in the area.
Among many other things, we learned about Carver Nursery School, which was named after George Washington Carver, an area inventor, educator and humanitarian – and one of my idols (you can read more about Carver and the national park dedicated to him here).
Carver Nursery School was founded in 1951 as a preschool and elementary school for African American children in Joplin. Area African American teenagers attended Lincoln High School until the late 1950s when they joined the other students at Joplin Senior High School.
As someone who moved to Joplin in the ‘90s, I had no idea about this part of Joplin’s history. The African American culture is so integrated now in this town that it’s hard to imagine life otherwise. But it’s important to learn about how things were in the not-so-distant past, and I’m glad that this education is a part of the Emancipation Park Days event.
We were lingering by the history boards when we saw a crowd begin to form around the tennis courts. “The Cobras must be here,” Julie said.
And they were. We could hear the shrill sound of a whistle and the feel the beats coming from the percussion as The Kansas City Marching Cobras made a spectacular entrance at Ewert Park.
This well-known drill team, which has performed for multiple U.S. presidents, combines dance moves from African dance, jazz, and hip hop into its choreography.
The tennis courts at Ewert Park provided a stage for the Cobras, allowing people to watch the team from multiple sides. I watched as our kids leaned on the tennis court fence, transfixed by the energy and movement of the drill team.
No video games had been played today. No iPads had been turned on. The kids had been thoroughly entertained at a decades-old cultural festival.
And our summer ended with the creation of new memories.
For more information on Emancipation Park Days, click here.
To read more about my adventures in the area, visit JoplinMOLife.com.