In September 2015, the National Folk Festival launched its three-year tenure in Greensboro, North Carolina, marking the festival’s return from a short hiatus. As a city historically at the center of struggles for individual rights and freedom, Greensboro was a fitting host city for the National’s celebration of the diverse cultural traditions that collectively define America, and its spirit of community collaboration. Local leadership, seeking to bolster an already-strong arts community, was eager to establish a new signature event spotlighting Greensboro’s history and many distinctive cultural communities, as well as the rich traditional arts that thrive in North Carolina. The city also aspired to increase tourism and reinvigorate its historic downtown district. This vision, strengthened by the spirit, energy, and enthusiasm of the city’s residents, made Greensboro fertile ground to seed both the National and its legacy event, the North Carolina Folk Festival.
Nicknamed the “Gate City” for its early prominence as a railroad hub, Greensboro was founded in 1808. Located in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, the area has been inhabited for thousands of years by a range of Indigenous groups including the Keyauwee and Saura, who encountered the first European settlers arriving in the 1750s. The convergence of Native American, African American, Quaker, Scotch-Irish, and German cultures birthed the region’s richly varied folk traditions. Beginning in the late 19th century, textile production would become a hallmark of the city’s economic, social, and cultural life as demand increased for durable apparel among the nation’s workforce. In 1960, Greensboro was the site of a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter, a watershed moment that sparked sit-ins nationwide protesting segregation and demanding equal rights for Black Americans. In the following decades, refugee and other immigrant groups from Southeast Asia, West Africa, Latin America, and, more recently, the Middle East found safe haven in the city. These communities comprise about 20 percent of Greensboro’s total population today, weaving bright new threads into the city’s rich cultural fabric.
In 2014, the nonprofit Arts Greensboro spearheaded the city’s effort to attract the National and the coordination of local partners. Once launched, the National was an enormous success throughout its three-year residency. It featured up to 300 artists on 7 stages, and a designated North Carolina Folklife Area & Stage showcasing regional music, dance, craft, and cuisine. Accompanying the National’s debut was the Fabric of Freedom, a thematic program examining Greensboro’s unique place in the ongoing struggle for freedom and social change. In 2018, Arts Greensboro successfully launched the North Carolina Folk Festival, whose first two years fetched attendance upwards of 150,000 and $15 million in economic impact. The North Carolina Folk Festival proudly carries on the National’s legacy and mission to weave an annual multicultural tapestry reflecting the evolving character of Greensboro, the state of North Carolina, and the nation.