The Owensboro Black Expo began in 1973 with programming and events that would help unite the city. They’re still at it 50 years later.
Longtime member Deborah Hampton said when she joined the Expo in about 1980, the annual celebration was one of the key events in Owensboro. Back in the days of the Executive Inn, she said, several vendors, booths, and other activities would fill the area for the full week.
“We always started out with a gospel program. On Monday, there was the parade, and then we’d have the outdoor festival. We had basketball tournaments, you name it. It was lots of fun and lots of music,” she said.
Hampton said people always enjoyed being there, and after seeing the reception, she joined the board because she wanted to join the Expo’s mission of unity.
In the coming years, the organization added several other events to its repertoire. For example, the Owensboro Black Expo Pageants were born, offering different levels so all children of all ages could get involved.
But Hampton said the pageant was more than the competition, it was a way for participants to get plugged into the community and help boost their confidence.
“It gave them a sense of pride, and when they won the pageant, we gave them scholarship money,” Hampton said. “…They would do different tests during the year to showcase what they had learned, and they would go and volunteer in the community in the name of Expo.”
For a young Dominque Maddox, it was the place to be.
Maddox said for her, like for many Black kids, the festival at the end of every summer was meaningful.
“I was watching my friends and people that were older than me participate in the Black Expo pageant and the parade,” she recalled.
As the Executive Inn closed and eventually was torn down, the Expo had to find a new place to take their programming. They moved to Dugan Best and the H.L. Neblett Community Center.
But when the location changed, Hampton said, the atmosphere changed as well. Maddox, who left Owensboro when she went to college and didn’t come back for 15 years, said she was affected by how much the Black Expo had changed in her time away.
So in 2017 when Maddox ran into Hampton, the two talked about how the program needed newer eyes to help run the organization. The passion from Maddox eventually led her to become president of the organization.
“I realized I wanted to give back. I want to figure out new ways so that the community can still have what I had as a kid with Black Expo,” she said.
She began looking for ways to begin looking for ways to ignite unity within the community. Some of the first things began with starting an annual Juneteenth celebration.
Hampton said that is one of her proudest moments with the Expo. In the first year, Maddox and Hampton said several people didn’t know about Juneteenth, so they were able to embark on something new for the community.
“We have so many roots and things that we need to learn about, and I think that just started the Juneteenth celebration — which is one of my proudest moments,” Hampton said.
Both women said the Expo has been able to solidify events and programming for a community that feels overlooked.
“People want to feel appreciated. They want to feel recognized. They want to feel a part of the community. And even now, I know it’s not the same as when I grew up, I think about how those same ideas and values still run through, and they’ve just manifested in different ways,” Maddox said.
Maddox hopes that Black Expo has become an organization that can teach people about the experience of Black Owensboroans. Hampton said she’s proud of the progress made over the years, but knows it will soon be time for a new generation to take over.
“I’ve been there for 40 years. It’s time for young people to come on and take the torch and keep it going,” Hampton said. “I just want to see it get bigger and better and bring in more new talent, and I want it to be all it can be.”
But in the meantime, they will continue to celebrate and work toward bettering the community because “that’s what it’s all about.”
“We offer safe spaces and forums for people to come together, and that’s what we’re always going to encourage,” Maddox said. “Not to exclude anyone, but we know that we do have to take care of our community so we can be a contribution to the at large and our state.”