Sarah’s Sweetwater Greenway Loop Festival kicks off at Cotton Club

About 150 people showed up to The Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center for Sarah’s Sweetwater Greenway Loop Festival kick-off event Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023.

Sarah McKnight’s legacy will always have roots intertwined with the Gainesville community.

As an African American woman whose impact as a musician, businesswoman and prominent nightclub owner was often unnoticed in the 1950s, McKnight’s ties to the city are now celebrated with the first-ever Sarah’s Sweetwater Greenway Loop FestivalThe festival advocates for the preservation of Gainesville’s historic districts. Named after McKnight, the festival held its kick-off event Thursday at The Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center — a building that was once a post-exchange during World War II, a movie theater for African Americans and a nightclub opened by McKnight in 1953.

The Cotton Club now serves as a cultural monument for a lot of the Black history found throughout Gainesville — the Black history residents feel is often overlooked.

Otis Stover, a Gainesville native and vice chair of The Cotton Club, said he feels the University of Florida has taken over too much of the city and Gainesville locals have less of a say in what goes on throughout their community.

“They really should celebrate these rich, diverse neighborhoods in Gainesville,” he said. “A lot of them have a long history, and if you don’t talk about it and encourage it and nurture it to grow, then who else is going to do it?”

This festival is a good way to revitalize the community and bring back some of the character he feels has been lost, Stover said.

Posters of artwork and ideas contributed by 15 local artists a part of Spatially-Fed line the area outside of The Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center during Sarah’s Sweetwater Greenway Loop Festival kick-off event Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023.

Sarah’s Sweetwater Greenway Loop Festival is a five-day event that began Thursday and ends Monday. Each day is hosted in different historic districts of Gainesville — including Springhill, Pleasant Street, Duckpond and Grove Street.

Sweetwater Branch Creek, which streams through each of these neighborhoods, has become subject to gentrification and pollution, something Harley O’Neill, the festival’s local project manager, hopes to correct.

The goal of the festival was to encourage meaningful dialogue among the communities in Gainesville who would be affected by the implementation of the greenway, O’Neill said. Not only about how they would be affected but how they could alter the greenway to assemble support for local-owned businesses throughout Gainesville.

The health and water quality of the Sweetwater Branch Creek seem to be the most important things to residents, she said. Along with using the greenway to increase safety for pedestrians and bikers.

“This is a capacity building project,” she said. “It is bringing neighborhoods together to put on a festival that is created by them, but also encourages them to collaborate.”

With climbing numbers of pedestrian casualties in Gainesville, implementing a greenway to decrease these incidents was a strategic plan enacted by the city of Gainesville. A Sweetwater Branch Greenway was even included in Harvey Ward’s mayoral campaign.

“Instead of just having a greenway that runs through perhaps the most white and affluent parts of Gainesville already, what if we connect it to the existing trails,” O’Neill said. “Let it be this route in this pathway for connecting more local businesses and increasing their businesses’ visibility.”

The ultimate goal of the festival was to use Gainesville’s voices to encourage the city to fund a proactive greenway that incorporates the arts and culture found within each district of Gainesville, she said.

Two women listen intently as the Mt. Olive A.M.E Church Choir perform at The Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center during the kick-off event for Sarah’s Sweetwater Greenway Loop Festival Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023.

Each day of the festival includes different styles of music, performances and artwork showcasing both the history of places like The Cotton Club and the Matheson Museum with the innovation of other businesses and art districts.

In collaboration with the Community Foundation of North Central Florida, each neighborhood participating in the festival was given $5,000 to plan different activities for each day. They also granted Spatially-Fed — a community organization centered around artistic well-being — $10,000 to pay 15 local artists to envision how the greenway loop could benefit the city, O’Neill said.

To ensure the greenway is beneficial to the community, it’s essential to include Gainesville voices, she said.

Karen Johnson, a Gainesville resident who has lived in Springhill her whole life, said everybody who lives there looks out for each other, and this festival is a good way to get people talking.

“Everybody needs an input,” she said. “Anytime changes are coming to your community, it’s nice for the people that live in that community to have a voice. So many times we are left out, without a voice, and this helps everybody come together, give opinions and suggest ideas.”

Today, the festival will take place in the Power District from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday includes painting, poetry and theatre at Pleasant Street and Fifth Avenue from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday has a “fun run” through Duckpond and the Southeast Historic District that starts at 9 a.m. The festival ends Monday with a farmers market, live performances and brewery tours at Grove Street. Each day also includes a screening of the documentary “Sarah’s Place,” which tells the story of Sarah McKnight and her lasting impact on the Gainesville community.

“Any time anybody walked into one of (Sarah’s) businesses, they felt so welcomed,” O’Neill said. “It didn’t matter your background, your affiliations. She created spaces that were very loving and warm and creative and equitable. So we think that she exemplifies exactly what this could do if it’s done the right way.”

About Ashleigh Lucas

Ashleigh is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing

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