Something big is missing from Charlotte’s festival scene Saturday. The annual Taste of the Lowcountry event is on hiatus after 16 years. The man who provided a Taste of the Lowcountry died last month.
In some ways, A Taste of the Lowcountry owes its existence to football. In the 1990s Matthew "Chew" Washington would host tailgates for games between historically black colleges South Carolina State and North Carolina A&T. Childhood friend Louis Mitchell helped organize those tailgates. He says they became so popular they spurred a bigger vision for Washington.
“Matthew came up with the idea that we could do more, not just around football or anything like that. What he actually wanted to do was have a hallmark event that would be for back to school, bringing friends, family, community, and associates together.”
And the Taste of the Lowcountry was born at Independence Park.
It served as a reunion of African Americans who identify as Gullah. Their enslaved ancestors were brought from Africa to South Carolina’s Lowcountry, coastal areas of Georgia and north Florida. They’re unique because due to isolation they kept a lot of their African heritage. That heritage is featured at the event with South Carolina Lowcountry dishes like red rice, okra soup and seafood like blue crabs, shrimp, and fish.
They gave away school supplies, had a dance contest and a spades tournament. It even landed corporate sponsors. Mitchell says year after year the event grew and the word began to spread.
“We had people coming from Charleston, Georgetown, Atlanta, up north. And again Charleston people are spread out all over the place, it’s like a family reunion and we’d come together here in Charlotte," James Smith said. "I think at its height we had almost a thousand people at one picnic one year.”
Smith moved to Charlotte from Charleston in 2002. When he arrived he didn't know anyone. He credits the event for making him feel at home and making friends.
“I can literally say 80 to probably 90% of the people I know here in Charlotte, I know because of Matthew, through Matthew. He’s actually just the nucleus of it all...it’s a family.”
Matthew Washington was also a native of Charleston and ran the event the last couple of years while battling a rare form of cancer. Washington died on July 24, organizers say his death was just too close to the event to continue it this year.
“He will always be known as somebody always willing to help. He was always there trying to help you. If you had a problem and talk to Chew he’ll try to find a solution. He was that person who did so much and was so humble about it," Smith said.
"His name may not appear in no newspaper or nothing like that, as somebody like some big politician or anything but the influence he’s had in Charlotte is immeasurable. The amount of people he connected, the amount of people he supported, the amount of people he uplifted is immeasurable.”
Organizers say this is just a one-year hiatus. A Taste of the Lowcountry will definitely be back next year. They say that’s what Washington would have wanted.