History of Umoja

Umoja Fest honors Seattle’s Black community’s rich and historic heritage. The festival and parade celebrates our collective ability to make ourselves, our families, community, city, state, nation and world a better place for our future generations.

The spirit of the Umoja Fest African Heritage Festival & Parade is one that spans more than six decades. A tradition since the 1940s, Seattle has hosted the annual African American community festival and parade as a custom writing celebration of the city’s ethnic diversity. Originally part of the International Festival, it would be known over the years as the East Madison Mardi Gras and the Pacific Northwest Black Community Festival. It not only has been credited as the inspiration behind SEAFAIR (which emerged during the early 1950’s) but also continues to be held during SEAFAIR’s annually activities.

The purpose of the festival and parade is to highlight the history and countless contributions of African-Americans locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. It is a celebration that gives people for all over Washington and the northwest an opportunity to experience the rich African heritage and culture of the region.

The festival and parade,which is coordinated by volunteers, is a three-day festival includes musical entertainment of all varieties,children’s group performances, dance, oration national recording artists, food, bargains, and plenty of fun.

“Umoja” is a Swahili word which means “unity”, is the main theme of the festival. An artistic and cultural extravaganza that uniquely touches the spirit of the community, the Umoja Fest has historically been the most unifying celebration in the community, bringing people of all ethnic backgrounds together for a celebration of culture, education, social festivities and networking. Event highlights include the African Heritage Parade, Children’s Day, African Drum & Dance, Jazz, Soul, Reggae, Spoken Word & Poetry, Hip-Hop Fest, Basketball Tournament, Fitness Demonstrations, Gospel Fest, Voter Registration, Vendor Marketplace & Community Resource Fair.

The East Madison Mardi Gras

In the late 50s and 60s the East Madison-East Union Commercial Club proudly sponsored the East Madison Mardi Gras Festival and Parade. Before the Mardi Gras, the African American community participated in the International Festival.

The International Festival was held in what was once known as Chinatown. Chinatown is currently referred to as the impact of the International Festival. The international Festival was the first neighborhood event to agree to hold its festivities as an integral part of the Seattle SEAFAIR celebration. Four different cultures combined to stage the event: Filipino, Black (then Negro), Chinese, and Japanese. Each selected their own Queen and her court of four princesses to reign over her community and ride in the Parade on that community’s float. In addition to riding in the Parade through Chinatown, the Festival Queens and their courts rode in the Capital Hill Parades, Rainier Valley Parade, the University District Kiddies Parade and the SEAFAIR Grande Parade.

City officials estimated that nearly 200,000 people jammed their way into over crowded Chinatown Second Annual International Festival where the rich and out-of-other-side-of-towners and community natives elbowed one another for a glimpse at the Chinese dragon dancers, or the lovely Queens and their courts on their respective floats.

Long lines of people made their way through the streets from one food booth to another while others waited in lengthy lines of Chinatown restaurants. Asian dancers and style shows entertained for hours. As if that weren’t enough to put one into a frenzy, live bands such as Bob Marshalls jazzed up the night while torch songs rang out dwarfing the whistles of the incoming trains.

One man was rumored to have said, “This festival business had a flavor of the bootlegging days when Chinatown pulsated with Ragtime music and the rich slipped away from the usual boredom to swing and enjoy.”

The International Festival’s second year didn’t surpass its first because of the enormous turnout. The city had to break it up. This is when the four communities decided to put on their own festivals. From the move toward individual festivals, the East Madison East Union Mardi Gras Festival was born.

With the end of Mardi Gras in the 60s, various business and community leaders, including Pacific Northwest Bell, Central Area Motivation Program and the Pacific Northwest Black Community Association would carry the torch. Since 1997, the Umoja Fest African Heritage Festival & Parade has preserved the festival spirit and will continue to grow.