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Lifting spirits through North Richmond blues

on July 25, 2011

Fred Jackson was in a wheelchair, but his faith in others was as strong as ever. Sitting in the middle of Shields-Reid Park, during Saturday’s music festival in the heart of his beloved North Richmond, Jackson was the guest of honor. Asked to make a few remarks, Jackson held the microphone in his right hand. The boisterous crowd quieted to hear him.

He gave credit where it was due.

“But for the grace of God I can be here today. The service that I have given has come from God, and whatever I am I owe to all of you,” Jackson said, his voice a little softened by his continuing bout with cancer, but still stirring. “Thank you for allowing me to be of service.”

mclaughlin, fred jackson, henry clark

Mayor McLaughlin presents Fred Jackson with a civic award for service. (photo by Robert Rogers)

Service was a recurring theme at the 2nd Annual North Richmond Music Festival, which drew more than 250 neighborhood residents for a day of barbecue, sweet blues music and social service outreach.

The crowd was larger than last year’s, according to organizers, despite a recent spate of violence that has engulfed areas of the city, including North Richmond.

“A lot of people stayed home today, and that’s a shame,” said Don Mason, 60, a lifelong resident. “People are a little shaken by what’s gone on lately.”

Kiara Vazquez, 21, another lifelong resident, said North Richmond is much-improved in terms of street violence from where it was just a few years ago, but that the community is wary. “I hate to say it, but some people are afraid of a drive-by, even during the daytime and with all this law enforcement out here,” Vazquez said.

Despite the tough circumstances, the event built on the joyful mood and community building theme that it established last year, when community advocates organized a gathering envisioning a festival that provided a positive outlet for young people and celebrated North Richmond’s history as a haven for blues and other artistic expression.

kid dunking north richmond

Youths played basketball at the courts near the stage. Here, Marjon Stinson, 18, dunks. (photo by Robert Rogers)

Although none remain today, during the post World War II years North Richmond was home to a slew of nightclubs and juke joints, venues that drew many music icons, including James Brown and Jimmy McCracklin. As jobs dried up and the largely African American community suffered from unemployment and blight, the lively clubs went dark.

Bluesman Jesse James headlined Saturday, and was joined by the Umoja Community Choir, East Bay Center for Performing Arts, Willie G and Ella Pennywell, the Frank Samuels Blues Band and several others.

James’ guttural vocals paired well with a diverse set of performers, including a troupe of young girls who performed a spastic dance routine and Spanish language singers with high-pitched guitars. Audience members of all ages weren’t shy about unleashing their dance moves on the park turf in front of the stage.

local kids look at fire safety north richmond

Local kids checked out the city's fire safety display (photo by Robert Rogers)

In addition to the music, civic institutions were out in force. The Richmond Fire Department brought out its fire safety trailer, and firefighters chatted with local kids.

“Some of these kids out here rarely get to see the outside of North Richmond,” said Firefighter Rod Woods. “It’s important that we come to them.”

Woods, who is African-American, said it is important for minority youths to see positive role models within the Fire Department and other local agencies. “I know I can be a small inspiration, and that is powerful to me.” Woods said. “They’re looking up at me and they’re thinking ‘I can do that.’”

nicole valentino and fred jackson in north richmond

Mayor's office staff member Nicole Valentino was one of many who well-wishers who embraced Fred Jackson. (photo by Robert Rogers)

Henry Clark, a longtime environmental activist and community leader in North Richmond, has been credited with building support for the still-new annual music festival. “Dr. Clark was the impetus behind this wonderful event,” said Saleem Bey, president of the Shields-Reid Neighborhood Council. “He organized the committee that raised the issue and got it going.”

Among the event’s sponsors were the North Richmond Community Council, the West County Toxics Coalition, the North Richmond Municipal Advisory Committee, the city of Richmond and Neighborhood House of North Richmond.

“The goal is to get bigger and better every year. I can say this year’s event is definitely bigger and better,” said Carla Orozco, community services coordinator for Neighborhood House of North Richmond. “This year, we have more Spanish language music, more community organizations and just overall more variety.”

During Saturday’s event, some of the talk among local residents and leaders was the recent spike in crime and the community’s response. On July 3, Ray Hutson, 28, was killed and another man wounded in a driveby shooting just blocks away from the park.

The wounded man, who declined to give his name, was in attendance Saturday. He limped noticeably, still suffering from gunshot wounds that punctured his thigh and foot.

“I still can’t believe what happened to Ray, he was my friend since we were kids,” the man said. “Ray has two little babies, and I just don’t know what to say.”

Councilman Corky Booze, who was in attendance Saturday, has called for a community meeting Monday night at Richmond City Hall to discuss the violence and look for solution. Booze has specifically called on North Richmond residents, even those who reside in the unincorporated county portion of the neighborhood, to attend.

Henry Clark said he welcomed the invitation. “Corky’s move is new in the sense that we don’t often have city officials show much concern for unincorporated North Richmond,” Clark said.

Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles was also in attendance Saturday.

As Saturday’s event wound down, Jackson – a neighborhood leader since the 1950s – received a steady procession of well-wishers and friends who hugged him and offered kind words.

Mayor Gayle McLaughlin presented Jackson with a plaque for his community service, and remarked, “I’m just honored to know you, Fred.”

Jackson, who has endured aggressive treatment to thwart his cancer, mustered energy for a few more words. “North Richmond can be said to be a cornerstone of humanity. You can look at North Richmond and understand so much about the world,” Jackson said.

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