Before they became household names Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway made their bones in Tampa Bay.

Tampa Bay has long been a hub for African American culture in Florida. Tampa Bay's black heritage will take center stage this weekend when the 15th Tampa Black Heritage Festival fills downtown's Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.

The 10-day festival kicks off Jan. 15 with a 7:30 p.m. performance of the Alonzo King LINES Ballet at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts.

Organizers have put together a mix of cultural events, how-to business seminars and gatherings centered on the observation of the federal Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Jan. 19.

The highlight of the festival will be the series of day-long concerts in Tampa Bay's centerpiece park on the Hillsborough River.

Downtown will ring with the two-day music fest, Jan. 17-18. The theme is "Following the Beat of the Drum."  The featured artists are R&B, soul and jazz singer Ledisi, and quartet Atlantic Starr, whose song "Secret Lovers" reached No. 3 on the Billboard charts in 1985. But the festival stage will also include nearly a dozen local groups as well.

Also on the list for the festival:

  • Former CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien will be a guest lecturer at the University of South Florida's Marshall Student Center, 7 p.m., Jan. 20.
  • Artist Aisha Tandiwe Bell will exhibit her work at Hillsborough Community College's Dale Mabry Campus, 7 p.m., Jan. 22.
  • The Heritage Fashion Show will take to the runway at the Holiday Inn Tampa Westshore, 7 p.m., Jan. 25.

Many of the festivals events are free. But some, such as the fashion show and golf tournament, require tickets.

Come on out and celebrate Tampa Bay's black heritage!