Last week, I was searching the Internet when I came across a notice, “August Quarterly Festival Celebration,” presented by Evan W. Smith Funeral Services, Aug. 21 – 28, in Wilmington, Delaware. I recall August Quarterly as a young child and dedicated a column, more than fifteen years ago, to this event. I was surprised to learn that this event still exists. I decided to invite you to take a trip with me to the August Quarterly that I remember back in the day.
As a child, I did not know the exact date of August Quarterly or the significance of this event. I only knew that on a Sunday in August, my father would gather our family and we would head for Wilmington, Delaware. While I disliked participating in this event, today I reflect with pride on this August Quarterly gathering which brought together so many Black people. I do not recall seeing so many Black people coming together in a spirit of love as during this event. Excluding my father and mother, the rest of my family did not look forward to attending August Quarterly. In the words of one of my late sisters, “August Quarterly may have been a great event for adults but it was boring for children.” Yet, it was the premiere annual gathering for Black Americans in this area, back in the day.
While August Quarterly was popular in my household, it is interesting to note that most of my friends know little or nothing about this event. So, what is August Quarterly or The Big Quarterly? When did it begin and what was its origin? This event cannot be discussed without references to Peter Spencer, the father of the Independent Black Church Movement. According to the web site, Underground Railroad – Legacy, his African Union Methodist Protestant Church, founded in September of 1813, was the first independent Black church founded in the United States (Richard Allen’s AME Church in Philadelphia began in 1793 as a local church, but did not separate from the Methodist Episcopal Church until 1816). Spencer’s church is known today as the Mother African Union Methodist Protestant Church and is located on 9th and North Franklin Streets in Wilmington, Delaware. Born a slave in Kent County, Maryland in 1782, Spencer was manumitted upon the death of his slave master and moved to Wilmington. A mechanic with some knowledge of the law, Spencer became known in his community as “Father Spencer” as his particular brand of legal advice, literacy, and religious fervor made him popular. He taught people to read and write and believed the power of education and religion was a powerful combination. After the founding of the church, Spencer created the August Quarterly in 1814. His background is worthy of further research.
The August Quarterly event is a meeting held in Wilmington, Delaware, initially on the last Sunday of August. This event provided the Black communities from several surrounding states with a reunion and religious revival of sorts. Spencer intended for this festival, a celebration of religious independence, to provide an opportunity for Black Americans to celebrate and enliven their spiritual lives, and to come together to deal with matters of race, culture, and politics. With the exception of the Civil War years, August Quarterly has been held each year on the last weekend in August. Slaves and free laborers were given the day off to attend. Runaway slaves used the August Quarterly as a starting point from which to escape. August Quarterly is one the nation’s oldest Black American religious folk festivals.
A trip to Wilmington, Delaware was always a challenge with my mother putting in long hours preparing food for the trip and my father’s 1939 Chevrolet breaking down along the way. This trip was not limited to my immediate family; it was another of those experiences which included one’s extended family. I recall my mother’s sisters and their families traveling in caravan fashion to the August Quarterly. Quite often, this arrangement proved to be important. If someone’s automobile “broke down,” others piled into another family member’s automobile to continue the trip. Eventually, the driver of the broken-down automobile arrived and joined the festivities.
It is difficult to recall activities that I participated in during August Quarterly. Besides memories of throngs of people, I recall walking up and down the streets observing the vendors. We would start on one side of the street and walk blocks before crossing over to the other side of the street. Besides remembering vendors with a considerable number of religious materials, I recall a number of people selling foods. What I did not realize back then about August Quarterly, I have come to recognize today. Our current President Joseph R. Biden, while serving as a United States Senator from Delaware, made a meaningful statement regarding the significance of August Quarterly over the years from the floor of the Senate. “The festival combines worship with a cultural celebration and a spirit of reunion, of renewing ties with family, friends and with a history of activism that continues to inspire us all. The history and spirit, represented by the Big Quarterly, (August Quarterly) are important to our identity and character as a community and as a nation. It is an event that both reminds us of what has been overcome and challenges us to complete the journey.” So this is August Quarterly. Visiting it is consistent with my favorite Nigerian Proverb that I often highlight, “Until the Lions have their own storytellers, the tale of the hunt will always favor the hunter.”
So, perhaps it would benefit all of us in rebuilding the spirit of the Black family if we would take a physical or a mental trip the last Sunday of this month to the August Quarterly and experience the ideals of this event, the way many families did, back in the day.