After more than 30 years celebrating the Dan Emmett Music & Arts Festival — named after the creator of Blackface minstrel shows — Knox County community members voted to change the event’s name to Mount Vernon Music & Arts Festival. This past Wednesday, Feb. 12, Mount Vernon’s Grand Hotel celebrated plans for the 33rd and newly renamed Mount Vernon Music and Arts Festival. As the main community event of the summer, the festival attracts between 18,000 and 22,000 people from Knox County and the greater Ohio area every August. Festival patrons are invited to enjoy live music and artistic performances as well as to support local businesses.
At the renaming celebration, Festival Director Joseph Bell gave an impassioned speech about the need for inclusivity of all abilities and artforms, emphasizing the production of an event that is “reflective of community pride.” This year, festival directors aim to raise $100,000, which is roughly $30,000 more than their 2019 goal.
While the festival’s budget, upcoming performers and new activities for this year’s event were discussed in full detail, the reason for the name’s adjustment was left unaddressed. The festival was originally named after Daniel Decatur Emmett, who was born and raised in Mount Vernon. Many of his minstrel shows were performed at the Woodward Opera House in downtown Mount Vernon. After 20 years of renovation, the Opera House was opened to the public during last year’s festival and has primarily been used for live music performances.
After years of criticism from several community members, the Festival Board sent out a public opinion poll after the 2019 festival last year to gauge whether or not the name should be changed. The Board received an overwhelming number of votes in favor of a change, and Dan Emmett’s name was reluctantly removed from the festival title.
“Removing Dan Emmett’s name from the festival’s banners will hopefully not just obscure the role of racism in Mount Vernon’s history,” Harper Beeland ’20, who attended the renaming, said, “[but] will ensure that everybody feels recognized by and connected to the city’s arts and culture.”