Elegba Folklore Society: A Legacy of Community Building

The visit to the Elegba Folklore Society (EFS) was a heart-opening experience not to be forgotten. After a warm greeting from EFS Founder, Omilade Janine Bell, the Visit Black History (VBH) team took some time to observe the art, books, jewelry and artifacts around the Center. The energy in the room made me feel at home. I took a moment to collect myself with a brisk walk around the block. Catching glimpses of interactions along downtown Richmond’s residents, I felt grounded and ready to meet the indomitable. I walked back into the building to find Omilade and the VBH crew sitting comfortably and getting acquainted. That easy conversation was foundational for the exchange that would soon follow. My interview with dynamic Founder and Artistic Director was much deeper than I imagined.

Based on my research, I felt like I was well acquainted with the story of Elegba Folklore Society. However, Omilade surprised me with the depth of her generosity and transparency in leadership, sharing wisdom from 29 years of sustaining a community based organization. I was moved to the point of *real* tears. 

As a former youth arts educator, I resonated with the drive to expose youth and community to positive cultural learning experiences that open new possibilities for a successful future. Helping the community understand it’s value by reflecting cultural importance is paramount for lasting transformation. The work is arduous, requiring massive tenacity and diligence. I suffered burnout and left the profession because of the tremendous exertion it requires to keep going. That was the end of my tenure in teaching, but Ms. Bell seems immune to the fallout of front line community building. She demonstrates her generosity through her commitment to not just educate through facts, but by her demeanor. She is what I hope to be: simultaneously loving and a force to be reckoned with. 

After the interview, we embarked on a tour of significant public spaces that demonstrate African American history. Every one of these sites felt relevant and alive. Ms. Bell’s command of the subject matter was evident as we peppered her with question after question. From a slave trade port, to an auction block site, to Maggie Walker’s residence and tracing black history through the University and more, I learned more black history in a few hours than I could hold in my head. Refusing to lose even one drop of information to forgetfulness, I had to receive that knowledge in my soul and let the ancestors help me honor their memory. 

While at the slave trade site, I collected some soil. My own genealogy research helped me find my family’s origin in Virginia, so I felt a direct connection to that plot of earth and I wanted to take some home with me. The soil now sits on my altar space along with a gift from Ms. Bell, a commemorative pin. My experience of EFS lives on in my heart and my intention is to continue supporting VBH as these connections are fortified.

Thank you, Sophia, for the opportunity to assist VBH in collecting the story of the Elegba Folklore Society, and for crafting valuable learning experiences that nurture my commitment and work. 

Submitted by Rev. Ali’a Brooke EdwardsOctober 10, 2019

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