MOJA Arts Festival

MOJA Arts Festival

Date Observed: Late September to early October
Location: Charleston, South Carolina

The MOJA Arts Festival celebrates African and Caribbean influences on AfricanAmerican culture, bringing together theater, dance, music, films, and art shows over a 10-day period. The festival takes place in Charleston, South Carolina, from the end of September to early October.

Historical Background

African-American heritage and culture abounds throughout Charleston, South Carolina, which was a major port for slave traders bringing captured Africans to North America. Slaves were also imported or sent to the nearby Sea Islands where African-American Gullah/Geechee culture maintains its roots in west Africa (see also Georgia Sea Island Festival; Native Islander Gullah Celebration; and Penn Center Heritage Days).

African slaves helped establish the first colony in South Carolina near what is now Charleston (first called Charles Town). The forced labor of slaves created great wealth for plantation owners growing rice, indigo, and cotton during the 1700s. Yet, slaves resisted by damaging tools, acting sick or dim-witted, or running away. In 1739 about 100 slaves staged a rebellion, hoping to get to Spanish-controlled St. Augustine, Florida, where they would be granted freedom. But the slaves were captured and most were executed.

In 1822 Denmark Vesey led another revolt. It also ended with executions. Later planned uprisings were uncovered before they could take place. When the Civil War began, the Union army gained control of the Sea Islands, where enslaved people found refuge; Union forces considered the runaways free people.

After the Civil War, African-American accomplishments in Charleston included the founding of the Avery Normal Institute, now called the Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture. During the MOJA Festival, the Center is one of more than 90 venues for presentations of African-American art forms.

Creation of the Festival

African-American arts were first celebrated in Charleston in 1979 and again in 1981 and 1983. In 1984, the first annual MOJA Arts Festival began. Although MOJA appears to be an acronym, it is the capitalized version of moja, which is Kiswahili for "one." The festival is under the direction of the City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs in partnership with community arts groups and civic leaders.


The MOJA Arts Festival is an assortment of artistic events: visual arts; classical music; gospel, jazz, and rhythm and blues concerts; poetry and storytelling; theatrical productions; crafts and children's activities; and, of course, ethnic food. Many award-winning artists appear. In addition, there is an annual Caribbean parade and reggae block dance with an estimated crowd of 15,000 people.

In 2005 a "Ceremony for the Unknown Africans" commemorated the many enslaved Africans who died after arriving in Charleston and were placed nameless in the morgue of the Old Slave Mart. There was also an exhibit, "Dialogues from the Diaspora: Art in an Age of Authenticity," at the City Gallery.

Visitors to Charleston who attend the MOJA Festival are encouraged to tour the numerous historical sites that are part of African-American history in the area. These include the Old Slave Mart Museum, Denmark Vesey's house; the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the second oldest AME Church in the world (see also Founder's Day/Richard Allen's Birthday); Catfish Row, which inspired George Gershwin to use it as a setting for his opera Porgy and Bess; slave quarters throughout the city; and the Gullah Sweetgrass Basket Makers in Charleston's historic market.

Contacts and Web Sites

Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture 66 George St. Charleston, SC 29424 843-953-7609; fax: 843-953-7607

Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau 423 King St. Charleston, SC 29403 843-853-8000

City of Charleston, South Carolina Office of Cultural Affairs 133 Church St. Charleston, SC 29401 843-724-7305; fax: 843-720-3967

"Official Visitors Guide for African-American History and Culture," an online guide published by the Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture (see contact above)

Further Reading

Sanchez, Jonathan. "The MOJA Index." Charleston City Paper, September 28, 2005. 254&parentID=1254.
References in periodicals archive ?
On Friday evening, the City of Charleston hosted a welcoming reception at the City Gallery on the Waterfront, as the Summit coincided with the opening of Charleston's Moja Arts Festival, which celebrates both our African American and Caribbean cultural heritage.