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August Quarterly celebrates 205 years

Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
Mother African Union Church on N. Franklin st.

The nation’s oldest African American festival is underway in Wilmington.

August Quarterly has been celebrated with revivals at churches throughout Wilmington this week and now heads into a weekend of celebration.

The festival is led by Mother African Union Church in Wilmington.

The church was founded in 1813 by Peter Spencer as the first incorporated African American church in the country. The festival was founded a year later.

“Of course it starts a movement of African American religion and religious bodies. And it starts a movement of giving African Americans and other people the right to peaceable assembly,” said  Rev. Dr. Lawrence Livingston, senior pastor at Mother African Union Church.

A monument at the gravesite of Peter Spencer off N. French St.

  Livingston says many enslaved people attended the festival in the early 19th century. The festival played a role in the underground railroad and in maintaining social ties.

“It became a place where families who had been torn apart by slavery and oppression to reunite— we’ll meet at the Quarterly,” said Livingston.

Hiran Dyre is the events coordinator for the festival. He says the festival still provides a place for people who haven’t seen each other all year to reunite.

“You get a mix of a lot of people coming down from all different places— New Jersey, Virginia, Baltimore,” he said.

Livingston says the festival has long been a celebration of freedom of religion, speech and assembly.

Even in the 19th century, the festival drew thousands. Livingston says he found a newspaper clipping from 1883 that said attendance had fallen, but still stood at roughly 3,500 people.

Attendance again took a hit when the festival was displaced from much of its traditional location on French St. as a result of what Livingston calls “urban removal.”

Construction of municipal, county and state buildings on that street meant three prominent African American churches— including Mother African Union Church— were forced to relocate.

Livingston says the festival, which had once occupied upwards of ten blocks on French St., was subsequently confined to two.

Attendance at the festival began to pick back up again in the late 1990s, when it moved to Tubman-Garrett Park with support from the City’s first African American Mayor, James Sills.

Livingston says there’s been a recent resurgence in support and attendance for the festival, with people still seeing the need to affirm its values.

Livingston says it draws upwards of 8,000 people now.

This year’s August Quarterly festival ends Sunday with a worship service at the Chase Center, followed by the traditional Big Quarterly celebration at the Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park— which features Gospel music, food and vendors.


Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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