An Interview with Lady Gloria Free

Gloria Howard Free, also known as Lady Gloria Free, is the founder of the Asheville Goombay Festival.

Free is an Asheville native who grew up in a house on Clingman Avenue, part of the historically African American Southside neighborhood. She attended Hill Street Elementary, Ashland Avenue Junior High, and graduated from Stephens-Lee High School in 1951. These schools served African Americans during segregation, with Stephens-Lee being the only high school for African Americans in Western North Carolina until desegregation. It’s reputation as a quality school lives on to this day. “I loved it,” said Free about Stephens-Lee.

During her teen years, Free worked at the YMI drugstore on the corner of Eagle and Market Streets in the African American business district known as “The Block.” She also belonged to Mt. Zion Baptist Church, which was down the street from the YMI. Some of her fondest memories were Sundays when people would come to the drugstore after church to socialize. After the store closed they would head to the Plaza Movie Theater up the street. She has fond memories of Mr. and Mrs. Harris who owned the store, and the pharmacist Dr. Jones. “I felt at that time it was such a great privilege as a teenager to be on the Block and be a part of the scenes on Sunday afternoons. It was a highly experiential thing for me, of my culture, and it raised my awareness of certain things like segregation.” Because of her history on the Block, Free points out, “I have that sensitivity to the YMI not only through Goombay, but having put my footprints in that building.”

In 1974, Ms. Free and her daughter attended an Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) Sorority Boule’ event in Miami Beach, Florida. Also from Asheville in attendance at that event were Florence and William Green, and Jacqueline, James and Jocelyn King. The most memorable part of the Boule’ was a Goombay Night – a Caribbean celebration on the beach. The music, food, fashions, and the spirit of that night left a lasting impression on Free.

Thoroughly inspired, she knew she wanted to bring Goombay to Asheville. “I chose for this to happen in my hometown…Goombay got me that night. I’d never experienced anything like that.”

What struck her most about Goombay was that it was a kind of celebration that didn’t exist in Asheville. “There was something missing in my hometown.”

Eight years after that memorable night in Miami Beach, Free was at a meeting of the Friends of the YMI Cultural Center. The group was “mindstorming” ideas for fundraisers for the YMI. So she spoke up. “I have a dream,” she said, and began to talk about her vision of bringing Goombay to Asheville.

“That was how the whole thing began, sharing that idea with this group of women.”

Goombay Founders being honored at the YMI Cultural Center in 2004

The friends of the YMICC who heard Free’s dream and subsequently made it into reality included Georgia Allen, Jeanne Bowman, Sophia Dixon, Helen Edington, Barbara Hunter, Barbara Jones, Jacqueline King, Portia Leverette, Madge Murray, Julia Ray, Jacqueline Scott, Willie Vincent, Inez Whiteside, and Wanda Henry Coleman.

“I knew Goombay was supposed to happen in Asheville,” Free proclaims. “And I knew it would change the climate of my downtown, it would change the dynamics.”

For Free, the significance of starting Goombay “goes back to walking through that area of town and looking at the businesses that were there, the shoe shine parlors and all that and to realize that in that particular area, if something like that this happened, how differently we might feel, having ownership of something that would impact this community. And it has impacted my community.”

The first Asheville Goombay Festival was held in 1982. It started small, but it was lively and well received. “People began to realize that something is happening on Eagle and Market Streets,” Free explained. The annual festival continued to grow in popularity over the years.

In 2006, Free witnessed a white dove release, and saw it as a way to bring an awareness of nature to Goombay. With the support of Jesse Ray and YMI Director Harry Harrison, the first white dove release at Goombay happened that year. She says, “I choose for us to look up. It does something to us as we turn skyward. To look at what nature is doing up there, the doves in the sky getting together and then taking off.”

Oralene Simmons, Eugene Ellison, and Gloria Free (2004)

When asked about the significance of Goombay, Free says, “I feel the spirit of Goombay has impacted where I live. The nature of people free to dance, free to move, free to drum, free to sit and watch, free to play as children, if that’s the case… Goombay has been an integrated affair in terms of the attendance. People have come.” She has seen, “what it does for the people, and what it does to free up essentially our essence. I am talking about the essence of all people.”

With Goombay, Free says that she and the Friends of the YMICC have “given a gift of culture to the community here in the mountains, and it transcends an identity, in my opinion, of who we really are. I call it capital S-O-U-L, that’s what I call it. Resounding up through Appalachia – it has to reverberate through the universe.”

“From the time I first had this dream, which was 1974, to today which is the 33rd year of the festival, says something about Goombay,” Free points out. “The perpetuity of it. That to me is significant.”

Lady Gloria Howard Free and the co-originators of Goombay will be honored with a white dove release at the Main Stage of Goombay 2015, Saturday, September 12th at noon.