Wendy Bennett grew up in Belmont-DeVilliers where she and her friends walked the alphabet streets, celebrated birthdays and saw friends participate in the civil rights movement.
To rekindle those same memories of the glory and honor of the neighborhood affectionately known as The Blocks, Bennett and the Belmont-DeVilliers Neighborhood Association have planned a festival in his honor.
“The community is becoming more diverse and I think it’s just important that we know the progression, we know that change, we know what was, and it’s still a part of Belmont DeVilliers that we know where it was as that it changes. It’s just important to me personally,” Bennett said. “I think it’s good for the whole Pensacola community to look at the benefits for Pensacolans when they celebrate the rich culture that was and the rich culture that is still there in the midst of all the changes.”
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The first annual Belmont DeVilliers Heritage Festival will take place on Saturday from noon to 7 p.m. with live music ranging from gospel and soul to R&B.
Saxophonist and Pensacola native Antoine Knight will headline the event, including music from jazz and funk band Booker T. Washington. There will be local food vendors and eateries such as The Blue Dot.
Belmont-DeVilliers is a historic neighborhood in Pensacola centered around Belmont and DeVilliers streets. It became the epicenter of Pensacola’s black community following Florida’s “Jim Crow” laws that mandated segregation.
It was a bustling commercial district in the early 20th century, which Bennett describes as “black entrepreneurship on steroids.” There were restaurants, hair salons, churches, retail stores, beauticians, and many other stores in operation.
It was also a stop on the Chitlin Circuit with clubs hosting world famous musicians such as Louis Armstrong, James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and BB King.
Residents like Robin Reshard regard the neighborhood as a place where music was one of the foundations of its existence.
Music, be it blues, soul or R&B, is a cue for many cultural moments in black neighborhoods where it has shown that it is time to walk, to worship, to rest and even to find the time to love each other.
The neighborhood was also important as an economic engine with the amount of professional services provided by doctors, lawyers and funeral homes.
The festival will be a time to celebrate neighborhood culture, neighborhood people and neighborhood history and to celebrate neighbors past and present.
“I will always say that you have to make room for the old stories to be told, but you also have to make room for the new stories that are coming to this current generation without forgetting that you stand on the shoulders of so many generations whose the stories weren’t shared,” Reshard said. “And so it’s that opportunity, to do that by celebrating all around the music, the food, and the story, and at the heart of the spirit people of yesterday and today.
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When Bennett thinks of her childhood in The Blocks and all the memories she has in the neighborhood, it always makes her happy.
From her husband who was a newspaper delivery boy in the area to his memories of walking to music lessons, the rich history that Belmont DeVilliers carries in her heart and others is something she wants to share with the entire community.
“(I want to) increase the knowledge base about Belmont DeVilliers, what he was in his prime and what he hopes to be in the future and bring people together,” Bennett said. “We all make up the Pensacola community through downtown, whether it’s North Hill, the Belmont DeVilliers. The success of Pensacola depends on the success of all parts of our community. And you have to embrace the change that comes with the things that happen both inside and outside of our city.”
To register as a seller, visit the Belmont DeVilliers Facebook page.