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Festival celebrates ethnic diversity

In 1979, three local organizations — the Lawton Public Library, Cameron University and The Museum of the Great Plains — came together in response to a desire to raise awareness and appreciation of Lawton’s ethnic diversity.

Together, these organizations hosted an event known as “Rhythms and Reflections: A Mosaic of Southwest Oklahoma Heritage.” The event was billed as an “Ethnic Exposition” and it took place in the Lawton Public Library.

Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, this event became the seed that would eventually grow into one of the largest celebrations of multiculturalism in Oklahoma, the annual International Festival.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the International Festival. Every September, Elmer Thomas Park is transformed into a diverse tapestry of nationalities, customs and food.

Stroll through the festival and you’ll have a chance to experience the truly remarkable sensation of smelling sizzling Polish pork while eating a gyro and watching a traditional Polynesian dance all while, somewhere in the distance, “God Bless America” is sung in Spanish. It truly is a one-of-a-kind experience.

Rain or shine, scorching heat or biting cold, the festival has been a constant over these last 40 years. After growing too large for the library, the event moved outdoors into the library plaza. In 2008, the festival moved again, this time to its current venue at Elmer Thomas Park. At some point between ’86 and ’08 the festival was extended to three days.

“We think it was 1986, when the city became a partner, that it went to two days, but I don’t actually have a date for when it was extended to three days,” Billie Whipp, the Arts & Humanities Administrator for the City of Lawton, said.

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