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The Big August Quarterly celebrates 202 years this Sunday

Courtesty of the Delaware Historical Society
The Big August Quarterly in 1939 in Wilmington.

The Big August Quarterly, a huge celebration of the 1813 founding of the Union Church of African Members, is this week in Wilmington. The Quarterly is considered the country’s longest-running African American festival.

To understand the 202 year old festival, you need to know a little bit about a man named Peter Spencer. He was a freed slave from Maryland who moved to Wilmington and ended up becoming a religious leader.

Spencer broke away from an Episcopal church after facing discrimination from its white members. He and others then founded the first independent black church in the US -- during a time when Delaware still allowed slavery.

"You always have to be prepared for someone to say, ‘No, we were the first ones,’" says

Patricia Butler, a festival organizer and member of the Mother African Union Church.

"You may have been an independent church, or you may have had your own church, but no one had went to court to fight to say, ‘No one can come in and tell us what to do. This is our church, for us. And we are gonna worship God the way we want to.’"

And here’s the really incredible thing about Big August Quarterly: in its early years, slaves who lived downstate were given travel passes just so they could come up to Wilmington and celebrate the festival.

"We don’t have a lot of days that we can say are our holy days, or our holidays, so August Quarterly is sort of like an Independence Day for us," says Butler.

Festival organizers anticipate that thousands of people will come to the 9:30 a.m. Sunday service with Reverend Frank Madison Reid, III at the Chase Center on the Riverfront.