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Two hundred and twenty-seven years of Southport’s festival history

The history of Southport’s Fourth of July Festival celebration was first recorded in a newspaper in 1795.

At that time, the ship’s crew lying at anchor in the harbor would discharge salutes from their cannons beginning at daybreak and lasting throughout the day. Ships officers and town officials would share some companionship and toast the young nation’s independence during what was known as the “Festival of Free Men.”

The festival evolved over the ensuing years. By the 1950s, its name had been changed to the “Live Oak Festival,” and it was celebrated with parades, balls, and queens.

In the 1960s, the foundation of today’s festival was born. In 1962, the newly organized Southport Jaycees, in their search for a ways and means project, held the raffle on the evening of July 4. A lucky winner would walk away with a boat. The raffle was held at what was known locally as the “Cedar Bench; today, that landmark on the waterfront is called “Whittler’s Bench.”
Another newly organized civic club, the Southport Junior Woman’s, started the “Arts Festival” tradition in 1963. With Southport residents’ and tourists’ enthusiasm and excitement, the community’s patriotic spirit came alive by celebrating the now-recognized Fourth of July parade in 1964.

In 1972, the Secretary of State incorporated the festival as the “North Carolina Fourth of July Festival, Inc.,” a non-profit organization. Along with its board of directors, the professional staff at the Southport-Oak Island Area Chamber of Commerce, and many volunteer workers, it has grown into what it is today.

This three- to four-day festival has no counterpart anywhere. Hosted by this little seacoast town of happy and hospitable people, the festival annually brings joy and intense patriotism to the residents and visitors from every state in the union.

Since 1996, a Naturalization Ceremony has been incorporated into the N.C. Fourth of July Festival is administered by what is now the United States Department of Homeland Security U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS).

In 2011, 152 individuals from 52 countries and every continent in the world took their Oath of Citizenship and became United States citizens. Since 2007, 723 new citizens have been welcomed by the Festival, including 533 during the July ceremonies and another 190 during special Mid-Winter Naturalization Ceremonies in January. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Naturalization Ceremony has not been held since 2019. Ongoing complications prevented the 2022 event from the schedule of activities.

Holding to its mission of promoting patriotism, the festival also holds a Veterans Recognition Ceremony, Flag Retirement Ceremony, and Flag Raising Ceremony.

The Festival doesn’t lose sight of the fact that it is a celebration. The Waterfront Stage entertainment has festival attendees dancing in the street while Franklin Square Park offers a shady respite from the July heat as over 100 handmade arts and craft vendors set up their wares for sale in the park. In 2021, Oak Island was added as an Arts & Crafts, Professional Wrestling, Car & Truck Show, and Main Stage Entertainment venue.
Children are a focal point, with activities including old-fashioned sack races, watermelon eating contests at the Children’s Games, volleyball and skateboarding competitions at Beach Day, and face painting and children’s crafts at Children’s Entertainment.

Of course, our NC 4th of July Festival would not be complete without a fantastic parade through downtown Southport on the 4th, featuring floats, marching bands, military units, antique automobiles, clowns and Shriners from around the area, and fire department representatives from throughout Brunswick County. To cap it all off, at 9 p.m. on July 4th, a giant fireworks display will be presented over the beautiful Cape Fear River. It can be witnessed by thousands of attendees who camp out along Southport’s waterfront, on nearby boats, and in and around Oak Island.

In 2020, the Festival was held virtually due to health concerns and gathering restrictions due to the COVID-19 virus pandemic. The Festival returned to its history with exciting videos of past parades and firework displays. Festival staff and volunteers also made a tutorial on flag folding, celebrated the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote, heard stories from naturalized citizens about why they chose to become American citizens, and more. Check out the video library on the website that details these fantastic stories and interviews.

A hybrid event was held in 2021, with most of the events drawing larger crowds on Oak Island at Middleton Park. Events at Oak Island in 2021 included Arts & Crafts, Main Stage entertainment, Professional Wrestling, Oak Island Beach Day, the Shine & Show Classic Car & Truck Show, and the NC 4th of July Fireworks. In 2021, keeping crowd control in mind, smaller events were held throughout Southport 2021. They included entertainment dispersed amongst several city businesses, restaurants, and the Fort Johnston-Southport Museum & Visitors’ Center.

The Festival held in-person events in 2022. Events in 2022 were held in Southport and Oak Island, beginning with Opening Ceremonies on June 30th. The dates of the 2022 Festival were June 30th – July 4th, 2022.

The North Carolina Fourth of July Festival Committee began planning for the 2023 Festival in the fall of 2022. The festival dates were June 30th to July 4th, with Southport and Oak Island events. The 2023 Festival was the 228th year of the event. The NC Fourth of July Festival is a non-profit administered through the City of Southport, NC, as of September 2022.

The North Carolina Fourth Of July Festival 2023 brought a new administrator, new events, and crowd-pleasing experiences. New events included “Clicks of Confidence,” a trick house show, and a shuttle service. The festival food vendors consisted of food trucks on Howe Street and tent vendors at Franklin Square Park. The 229th NC 4th of July Festival will be held June 28-July 2024, 2024. The North Carolina Fourth of July Festival’s new addresses became P.O. Box 11247, Southport, NC, 28461; the headquarters became 113 West Moore Street (Indian Trail Meeting Hall), Southport, NC.