The Goombay Festival—which celebrates the lives of the Bahamian people who helped the Coconut Grove area of Miami grow in the 1880s—has been documented by members of the Florida International University community. It is in the process of being added to the Library of Congress American Folklife Center after taking place over the weekend of May 31.

For 92-year-old Coconut Grove native Frederica Simmons Brown, she never thought she’d see this happen. She also thought she’d never see the area change as much as it has.

In recent years, the Grove has become home to modern million-dollar “sugar cubes” and coffee shops that diverge from the area’s Bahamian roots. However, as Brown looked back on the days when she spent time on the porch of her light green bungalow, there was one enduring part of Black Grove’s legacy that brought smiles to her face. That was the Goombay Festival.

“A lot of us couldn’t afford to go to the Bahamas because the prices were too high,” she stated. “It brought Bahamian culture to us.” The Goombay Festival provided opportunities for the Grove’s rich Bahamian community to reconnect with their heritage.

AD 4nXdZ6VZzimyZa0R OlTO1P ahjycRglKN 2c2PUhlzubQYeULVOEpW Z8qkaK4Fqlv 4TNDhL2E9Mwo9H aMTSaEjoAyrdRsDcPVH8sGVpkzLqzOGQb1BPI8p2dOjNOC83I vgiysJW66SN hOQQ0l8MDKo?key=gvnE8IKQ 22 24zNVhSpw

Florida International University professor Rebecca Friedman said, “The Goombay Festival, historically, is such a deep expression of Bahamian culture from the Bahamas that has been brought wherever they settled.” Friedman, who is also director of FIU’s Wolfsonian Public Humanities Laboratory and one of the leaders of the preservation project, went on to add that The Goombay Festival is “sort of fundamental to their sense of culture and identity.”

“Miami was built by Bahamians,” Friedman stated. “It was incorporated by Bahamian men. To a large degree, Miami is a Bahamian city.”

The Florida International University project comes as the West Grove area is undergoing rapid gentrification—and while efforts to preserve the community’s history have been underway, such as a portion designated as Little Bahamas, large-scale changes to the community showcase the importance of the neighborhood.

Former residents, such as Valeria Patterson, have already experienced the changes.

Patterson, who is the director of FIU’s African and African Diaspora Studies Program, and who is also leading the project, stated that she “recently took my mother to Virrick Park” and that she “got disoriented on Day Avenue.”

“As those landmarks that were there when I was growing up disappeared, that’s when I knew things were changing,” Patterson said.

Bahamian immigrants were among the first of the Grove’s settlers and helped to build homes and teach the white community how to grow crops in the 1880s. At the time of the city of Miami’s vote of incorporation in 1896, Bahamians made up a significant portion of the 44% of Black Americans who took part in that vote.

The Goombay Festival—which is known for its Junkanoo parades, live music, and vendors from the area and the islands—emerged 80 years later, in 1976, for both white and Black Grove residents to honor that heritage.

Mikeya Brown, a member of the Goombay Festival’s planning committee and one of Frederica Simmons Brown’s granddaughters, said that the festival was “something you looked forward to,” and stated that it was “[their] pride, [their] heritage.”

“That’s what the Bahamian residents who were still there had. That was life,” she said.

Though the Goombay Festival took a long break in 2014, it returned in 2022. That same year, FIU started documenting the festival, which included interviews with the Grove’s elders. The collection captured various pieces of the festival, including a booth from the 2022 event that the community used to learn more about the festival’s history. 

That documentation, plus the work done at the 2023 festival, landed a grant for FIU from the Folklore Center in 2024. This year’s Goombay Festival is the product of that collection, which consists of oral histories, photos, and videos from the past three years, and that will be housed by the Library of Congress.

FIU Doctorate student and project contributor Aarti Mehta-Kroll is crafting her dissertation about how communities work to resist gentrification. She had already been all over Miami, but with the Grove, she said, there was something different.

“What makes this place unique is that there’s a strong sense of community,” Mehta-Kroll stated and added that Goombay “is more so an act of preservation than resistance. Actually, it’s resisting the culture from being erased.”

While the community has changed, the importance of capturing the Goombay Festival, as well as the stories from the neighborhood’s elders, remains valuable.