What is Umoja?


Umoja is Swahili for “Unity” which is to be in harmony, and of one accord, to combine and to include all.


For the past 19 years, the Umoja Arts & Cultural Inc., which is comprised of approximately 20 board members, has provided Northeast Tennessee with a variety of entertaining and educational opportunities.  Our mission, “to bridge and unify diverse cultures through education and artistic presentations of art, culture and heritage” is to improve and promote the region.

Umoja Festival History


Umoja is Swahili for “Unity” which is to be in harmony, and of one accord, to combine and to include all.


Unity is the heart of this regional event with a history of more than a decade of successful celebrations.


​This festival began in 1978 as an annual Unity Picnic. Members of the local NAACP, Concerned Citizens Group, Herb Greenlee of Carver Recreation Center and other community residents all played a part in the community picnic. It was always held around August 8th of each year with the participants providing things such as food, covered dishes, games and lots of fun.


After several years the community event faded out.  Then, in 1997, some of the original founders decided to revive the event with a little different format.  They became the keepers of the dream with the original purpose of maintaining a celebration of ethnic diversity and a universal love of life.  The purpose was and is to eliminate the barriers of race and cultures; an event that pulls together all peoples of the community.  The revival process brought the unity picnic of days past under the new name of Umoja/Unity Day Festival.  A celebration of three days offering a multitude of food and merchandise vendors, a variety of entertainers, thousands of people of various races and cultures, finalized with church services on Sunday.


The Umoja/Unity Day Festival was always held on the grounds of Carver Recreation Center; at least until the dream was “naturally dampened” … it rained and it rained.  It rained a lot like it did for Noah … Carver Rec grounds flooded and the festival was forced to move to a new location to continue the annual tradition.  The grounds of Freedom Hall, Johnson City, were available and the festival continued!


Freedom Hall grounds gave the festival an opportunity to expand … more space for the involvement of more vendors, a lot more food, more group participants (including some community churches), helicopter crews, more people (as many as 6000 at a time) and ample parking space. Today our festival’s permanent home is downtown Johnson City.  Once again the festival can spread out and is more accessible to all.  Here we have a festival atmosphere and a place where businesses downtown can bring in more revenue.


Although the unity picnic, through natural forces, was removed from the original location, the tradition continues; and it continues on a larger scale, upholding the purpose of the event … the purpose of “a celebration of ethnic diversity and universal love of life.”


It attracts over 30,000 people and showcases great food, merchandise vendors, information booths, wonderful music, medical screenings and fun games for everyone.  A children’s park and entertainment is provided for young children.  No entry fee is required, but donations are always welcomed.


Umoja History


Dr. Hezekiah Hankal, one of the Founding Fathers of Johnson City, helped start a number of historic black churches throughout Northeast Tennessee. Born a slave in 1825, he was reared in the Dutch home of James and Nancy Hankal in what is now Gray, Tennessee and was fluent in Dutch and several foreign languages. He purchased town lot number 12 from Henry Johnson in June 1869 for $300 as a site for the Colored Christian Church AND he was an avid checker player at the park area, now known as Carver Recreation Park.








For many years, Carver Recreation Park was “the summer home” for African-American youth during the hot days and a place for community picnics and gatherings and other events.  From these family picnic times and special events and community gatherings came today’s Umoja/Unity Festival.