November 2016
Homeplace & Community

Burkville's Okra Festival

   
This poster proclaims the importance of okra to Lowndes County residents.  

Barbara Evans is stepping down as director after 16th annual event.

Alabama has its share of festivals honoring everything from hot air balloons to lobsters, but, in many cases, it takes paid staffs and big budgets to draw crowds.

Such is not the case in the tiny Lowndes County community of Burkville where 16 years ago two women got together one hot, muggy day to spotlight a slimy, green vegetable.

It’s been that way from the first Let’s Have a Party celebration that doesn’t charge an admission or require $50 or more for vendor booths.

The annual Okra Festival was, as anticipated, another successful event, one that drew a huge crowd just off a narrow road honoring civil rights legend Harriet Tubman.

It also signaled an end for the original location of the festival – front and backyards of originators Barbara Evans and Alice Stewart.

Evans is 70 now and Stewart, who lived across the road from her, passed away several years ago, but festival supporters have indicated they are ready and willing to keep it going for years to come.

"In a way, our festival represents the South at its best with strong rural people," Evans said. "I love it because of how we keep it simple without frills."

She’s keeping next year’s festival close to her vest. She is telling folks it will be held again, but in another rural location because that’s where okra grows the best.

  Barbara Evans takes a breather at a unique rest stop during this year’s Okra Festival.

Evans may be stepping down as director of the event, but she plans to become a vendor, no doubt coming up with a new recipe for her favorite vegetable.

As the lone white resident in a black community, it didn’t take Evans very long to be accepted even with her aggressive outlook on life in an area where her neighbors are more laid-back than she could ever have imagined.

An activist from the day she was born, she has been a union organizer and front-line protester against those with ideas on how to make a quick buck at the expense others.

What really got her dander up several years ago were efforts by some entrepreneurs to create a solid-waste landfill not far from U.S. 80 where the historic Selma-to-Montgomery Civil Rights Trail meanders across several Black Belt counties.

Evans became a leader in demonstrations to block "the dump" as it was called, and it worked big time. For a while, her name became known across America with national civil rights leaders coming to Lowndes County to help support the protests.

Those days are long gone, but she hasn’t lost her passion when it comes to helping those in need.

Barbara and former Lowndes County Commissioner Tom Pringle examine an okra patch in Burkville.  

Former Lowndes County Commissioner Tom Pringle has known Evans since she arrived in Burkville two decades ago and said he has seen a noticeable change in her demeanor in recent years.

"No question; she’s become more mellow in the past few years," said Pringle, a farmer whose acre of okra is coming along nicely as summer turned to autumn. "We’ve been communicating a lot and she’s become more sophisticated by being mellow and can accomplish more things."

At the moment, Evans is having fun and relaxing more since okra flourishes during hot, muggy periods and cool weather isn’t what’s good for the veggie to grow.

"Okra is a staple in warm-climate countries all over the world and is prized for its thickening power in African stews," she said. "People in India love it as well."

Rock, country and blues bands had used the site to perform during the festival, but it’s about to have a new mission – growing lots of okra.

"The more you pick it, the more you get," she said. "In fact, if you stop picking it, it will stop producing. Even then, the dried stalks of large okra pods are beautiful and used in flower arrangements. There is virtually no waste."

She plans to convert her sprawling backyard into a perfect place for her okra to grow.

Okra seems to find new ways of making a name for itself, according to Evans, who said a North Carolina artist even developed a process for making paper from the vegetable.

"I’ve used that paper to send thank you notes," she said. "I believe okra is becoming the new kale, which seems to be all the rage these days."

Most grow and devour okra in its truest form from the fields, but it also has become popular with those who have come up with other ways to enjoy it; it’s now being eaten fried, stewed, mixed with sweet corn for casseroles and much more.

"Fresh Market has it dried and I think it’s better than potato chips," she said. "I knew it was gaining on kale when the prices of okra doubled over the last couple of years."

Life in rural Alabama is a far cry from her younger days when her family moved frequently and she wound up making new friends every year or so.

She believes the Okra Festival has brought her a measure of community respect because she arrived in the country and, at times, became a lightning rod for controversy.

  Barbara Evans holds up a homemade satchel that sold fast at this year’s Okra Festival in Burkville.

"My work as an activist in the fields of civil and labor rights and my years in Lowndes County as an environmental activist can be off-putting to rural Alabama’s population," she said.

That’s all behind her right now, but she lets folks know, if an important social issue pops up again, she might just jump into the deep end of the pool once more.

She now has a more sedate lifestyle with a couple of dogs to keep her busy and act as four-legged, barking security systems.

As a grandmother who enjoys spoiling her youngest relatives, she finds more time these days to read and even watch a favorite program on TV.

"I’ve always been unafraid to speak my mind and my direct approach is not always appreciated, but the Okra Festival has smoothed out all my rough edges and those days always provide great memories for me," she said.

One of those memories also provided her with something quite unexpected.

"One year, a man who just did not like me or my work grabbed me and we danced up a storm," she recalled. "Everyone knew we were not buddies, but for that one day we buried the hatchet and I could not stop smiling."

 

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.