New Festival In East St. Louis Aims To Highlight Black-Owned Area Businesses
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
EAST ST. LOUIS — Courtney Woolery was born and raised in Springfield, Illinois. Although her hometown is about an hour drive from East St. Louis, she remembers the numerous occasions in which her family would travel to the city simply for having fun.
“My mother came here for Chinese food, (and) my mother traveled down to have a good time,” said Woolery, who now lives in Cahokia after living in East St. Louis for six years. “It was always something that no matter where we traveled to — I’ve lived in 10 states, and I have a military mom — East St. Louis was always the place where she came back to, and this was the same for my family.“
Woolery wants to continue to have those memories and experiences in East St. Louis, which is why she’s hosting the city’s inaugural 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,” Woolery, 31, said. “You don’t have to look over your shoulder.”
Creating a new Black Wall Street
The Black Woodstock Festival will take place on Sunday, April 18, from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. It’ll be held at 8221 State St. in East St. Louis and will feature 54 Black-owned businesses. While most of the highlighted businesses are based in East St. Louis, others are based in cities like Chicago, Detroit and Memphis, among others.
Woolery got the idea for creating the festival last year after learning more about Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Black Wall Street, which was destroyed during the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. For two days, a mob of white residents attacked the city’s Greenwood district, which was known for being an economically thriving Black community.
East St. Louis experienced its own race-related violence just four years prior to the Tulsa Race Massacre. During the East St. Louis Race Riots of 1917, white people inflicted terror on Black residents in the area. The riot was partially a response to the growing Black economic development and political influence in the town.
With the Black Woodstock Festival, Woolery said she wants to bring that progress back to East St. Louis. She recognized the variety of East St. Louis businesses after attending vendor events last year through her mobile alcohol business, Tipsy Tequila.
“You could find people doing all sorts of things, whether it’s cooking, selling, roofing, anything in the Black community, and we just noticed that,” Woolery said. “We went to a plethora of vendor events last year and just saw how we all were coming together, and as a business, we really wanted to be a huge part of that and put on our own event. That was pretty much the motivation — just to revive that Black Wall Street movement in East St. Louis because it means a lot to us.”
There are 226 businesses in East St. Louis, excluding those who’ve applied for business licenses this year, according to the city clerk’s office. East St. Louis Mayor Robert Eastern III plans to bring more businesses to the area, and he said the Black Woodstock Festival is a great start for creating more awareness about the city’s economic potential.
Since last year, Eastern’s office, along with residents, have hosted city-wide cleanups in an effort to beautify East St. Louis. Additionally, the city recently partnered with Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville to apply for a $20 million grant through the W.K. Kellogg Foundation that’s aimed to address racial inequities across the globe. Eastern said building the area’s economic base is a piece of the grant. Eastern doesn’t expect to hear about the city’s application status until this summer, but he said he’s dedicated to finding other resources for the city’s economic development in case it’s not awarded.
“We were once labeled the All-American city, East St. Louis, so it’s my goal to become an All-American or to become a unified city,” Eastern said about the festival. “I think when you have these types of events and the parallels with the clean-up initiatives with different community partners, especially the citizens, it shows that we’re turning a curb and people are really getting more and more excited about becoming a part of the new Black renaissance here in East St. Louis.”
Eastern said he hopes Sunday’s event will encourage more people to bring their businesses to East St. Louis.
“This should be a welcoming platform for people to come and enjoy themselves in their city and being able to bring some commerce to the city,” Eastern said. “Also ( it’s) shifting the paradigm of the negative stigma that we have here in the city to a positive light.”
Shifting the paradigm in East St. Louis
Gaybriel Rockett is the owner of Flow Presents, an event production and marketing company. The business, which will be highlighted during the Black Woodstock Festival, recently expanded its services to custom design. During the event, she’ll be selling clothing from her Black on Black Love brand, which was started to bring more positivity to the city.
“I’m living outside (of the city) near abandoned homes and things like that….,and Black on Black crime kind of popped up in my head,” Rockett said. “I kind of wanted to change the narrative, so it’s starting right now with apparel, but it’s most definitely going to grow into an education perspective with workshops and things of that nature just to amplify Black on Black interaction, transaction and things of that nature.”
Rockett, a 10-year Navy veteran, left East St. Louis in 1992 and was stationed in California. She returned to her hometown in October 2020 to be involved in the changes happening in the city.
“That’s even more reason why I was attracted to the Black Woodstock and what it does for the community and to just change the narrative and support each other,” Rockett, who now lives in Washington Park, said. “It was in alignment with what I was doing because Black on Black love helps me be seen and get acclimated to the community that I want to serve.”
Rockett, 48, plans to buy abandoned property in the area and turn it into housing for veterans and other residents. She also has plans to run for political office.
“I feel good when I could come outside and sit on the porch and see other people, but there’s just so much abandonment and blight in our community that I just hope that what I’m doing, what Courtney is doing with Black Woodstock will shake up a few folks and encourage them to just participate a bit harder,” Rockett said.
Courtney Woolery hopes the festival mirrors the community collaboration that was present during the original Black Woodstock Festival, which is why she named it after the legendary music event.
“I did see that it was a music festival, but the camaraderie and the way that they came together just for one goal (was powerful),” Woolery said. “If you think about what they were going through at that time, social constraints...and they wanted to break free from that. They wanted to show that they could come together, there’s peace and that they could mobilize for a purpose.”
The Black Woodstock Festival (aka Harlem Cultural Festival) occurred during the summer of 1969 to celebrate Black music and pride.
“I really wanted to incorporate that — coming together in a peaceful way and just being slightly rebellious but not too much and then bringing in that Wall Street feel,” Woolery said. “We did put a spin on it, but the gist of it is still the same. We’re coming together to incorporate change and when this catches fire, this will be happening in other counties and states, and so for the first festival, we really want to set the tone.”
Woolery said she’s planning to have another Black Woodstock Festival in July and hopes to bring it to East St Louis’ downtown area. She wants to have the festival twice a year to include as many businesses as she can. For the first one, though, she’s hoping that people are encouraged to make tangible changes in East St. Louis.
“I want them to see that they can utilize their own town and that they’re needed in their own town,” Woolery said.
Admission to the Black Woodstock Festival is $1, and the event will also feature live performances, food and games. Masks are required to attend the event.
DeAsia Paige is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.