If you grew up in Atlanta, then you have heard of Freaknik. Originally spelled as Freaknic, it was conceived in 1982 as an end-of-year party for students at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). It became so popular that it turned into an annual event, was renamed, and HBCU students and non-students from all over the country started to flock to Atlanta in the spring to dance, have fun, and build community within the largely white spring break party scene.
Johnny Crawford is a photographer who worked at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 28 years, starting in 1985. He went to Morehouse College in Atlanta and was able to photograph some of history's biggest names and events during his nearly three-decade stint at the paper, from Nelson Mandela to the Olympics. He also photographed Freaknik for two years in the 1990s.
"Freaknic wasn't a big deal to me because I came from Atlanta University Center, where it started from," he told us over the phone. "Most of the time, the students were just trying to have fun without going to Daytona Beach. They had a step show at Piedmont Park, playing loud music and dancing."
Freaknik turned what was essentially a block party into an infamous street festival and a moment in culture. Despite the carefree nature of Freaknik, "there were certain views of Black kids in the South," Crawford said, that eventually led to friction between the largely Black attendees and the surrounding white neighborhoods. During his second year photographing the festival for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Crawford recalled the new city editor telling him, "‘You need to be ready to photograph the kids getting locked up.’"
"I said, 'Why? It's a bunch of kids partying and dancing in the street,’ which clogged the traffic, but as far as kids doing anything crazy, that wasn't a problem," Crawford said.
Freaknik eventually stopped in 1999, with the city citing traffic problems. But it has remained a cultural moment that people remember fondly. The festival returned in 2019, and you can still find a few of the amazing T-shirts on eBay. We looked back at some photos of Freaknik in its heyday.