Annual Footwash draws crowds

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 23, 2007


GRIER – After 119 years, the annual Footwash is considered among the longest continuous running festivals in the country, drawing crowds estimated at more than 30,000 over the fourth weekend in September.

It has everything most other festivals boast, plus more.

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One is its name.

Footwash, which has nothing to do with the throngs of visitors to this tiny unincorporated community washing their feet, has taken place outdoors over a 600-acre area here in rural Hale County every year since 1888.

What began as a benevolent society’s annual function, held near the woods where Hale, Marengo and Perry counties meet, has transformed through the years.

Bus excursions come from all over the country. Vendors from throughout the South bring mobile units preparing food, movies, music, jewelry, commemorative shirts, clothes, shoes and entertainment.

The daylight hours offer family fun that once included a Ferris wheel.

The night offers exotic entertainment and music that provides an ethnic flavor from rap to blues.

“I’ve been coming for the past six years,” said Butch McCollum of High Point, N.C. “I love it. I always have a good time. This is a beautiful thing.”

McCollum’s Bwear T-shirt screening business makes several trips a year to annual festivals. He said Footwash was in his plans every year.

Andre Vann of Birmingham’s Andre’s Mobile Foods, brought 18 employees and has been serving up gigantic burgers and Polish sausages at Footwash for more than 20 years.

Customers in line at Andre’s booth Friday didn’t leave after learning there was a 20-minute wait.

The entire festival is held on private property that also includes groups of family and friends cooking out and enjoying reunions.

The “main day” is Sunday, when a worship service is held at the renovated one-room schoolhouse, which is still home to the Fair Hope Benevolent Society.

Uniontown, which is in Perry County, gets the credit as the place where the event is held, and to some Hale County residents that’s just fine.

But, the event has drawn criticism from some who say the purpose of Footwash has evaporated.

Organizers say the music, food and social atmosphere hasn’t taken over because the very purpose that put the annual Footwash on the map of African American destination places is still intact.

The society still goes to the aid of the sick, and offers assistance with funeral services. Many years ago, there were no funeral homes out in the country, said David Turner, president of the society. It still attracts members.

“Every once in a while we’ll have a new member to join,” Turner said, claiming the years wouldn’t allow him to recall how many members they have. “We have a secretary. And my brother is the vice president. It’s still a need for it.”

Turner said they have assisted “about 12 or 13 families in one year.”

The society hall still stands at the same site. The original structure was destroyed by fire in 1955, but it was rebuilt. The main paths, winding through the scenic countryside, have been paved with asphalt. But there are still dirt paths that offer a glimpse of the past.

Security walks throughout the festival, but law enforcement officers remain outside. Hale County Sheriff Kenneth Ellis’ deputies, Alabama State Troopers and area police patrol the routes leading in and out of the area, keeping traffic on the three two-lane arteries leading in and out moving.

Thursday night a Linden man was shot on the festival grounds. Ellis said the shooting was “probably domestic.”

Turner said he couldn’t recall another murder that’s taken place there and he’s been around for more years than his 74-year-old baby brother.

The History

In the late 1800s in rural Alabama, churches and their auxiliary organization, families and visiting church members would march in procession to the church, around the outside, then into the church for services.

The dust or mud generated throughout the march would make attendees have to wash their feet when they got back home, thus spawned the name of the Black Belt festival – Footwash.

In a biblical sense, the washing of feet was done by Jesus the day before he was crucified and symbolizes humility. It symbolizes that Jesus wanted no follower of his to set themselves above serving any other human being.

Grier, the unincorporated community where the festival is held, is named after Oscar Grier. He was a prominent landowner, who had the one-room schoolhouse named in his honor.

The structure is now the society hall.

Even though the tradition of the marching procession is gone, they still have church. The society still functions today. Dues are more than the 15 cents a month of the days gone by.

Today is “the annual day.” But with the festival’s growth, coupled with technology’s yield of the super sound systems, some things have changed.

“We still go over there and have service,” David Turner said. “We would have it that Sunday, but on account of everything going on, we have it that Thursday. Rather than being up there with all that fuss. You couldn’t hear the people singing and praying.”

Turner’s brother, Arthur Turner, serves as vice president. He said the dues are $63 a year now.

“Some just pay it out for the year, but there’s some that like to come over every month and pay it like that.”

The vendors make donations to the benevolent society, once they know the meaning behind the festival, Arthur Turner said.

He smiled at the notion of every attendee offering up a dollar to support the society’s mission – even though admission is free. More than 30,000 visitors are expected over the four-day weekend. “I would probably be wasting my time,” he said. “We will accept donations, though.”

Footwash Impact

Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said he’s loved the Footwash and has attended every year since he could remember. He likened the modern day Footwash to “a big swap meet.”

Uniontown Mayor Phillip White said people affiliate Uniontown with hosting the Footwash. Singleton said he doesn’t mind, because the event positively affects the entire region.

White agrees.

Singleton said it was a time he and his closest friends get together and enjoy the camaraderie.

“The Footwash, in its 100-plus year tradition, has had a very profound economic impact on the area,” Singleton said. “When we as African Americans, for a period of years, have been able to provide the impact of the swap of those dollars within the African American community, it means a lot.

“For small, legitimate African American businesses, the business they conduct is substantial for a lot of those businesses, and for the landowners who live in the area of the Footwash.”

Landowners have converted hay fields into parking areas, including a bus parking lot to accommodate busses that come from as far away as New York, Chicago and Mobile. Others lease spaces for out-of-town vendors to set up operations.

“This has a great impact on the Perry County, Hale County and Marengo County economies,” Singleton said. “Being that Uniontown is within five miles, Faunsdale two miles, Greensboro within 11 miles, people are traveling through buying gas, stopping in stores, and purchasing products. If the impact wasn’t there they (vendors and visitors) wouldn’t come back year after year, over and over.”