The history of Southport’s Fourth of July Festival celebration was first recorded in a newspaper in 1795.
At that time, the crew on ships 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 tradition of the “Arts Festival” in 1963. With the enthusiasm and excitement of Southport residents and tourists, the true community patriotic spirit came alive with the celebration of the now-recognized Fourth of July parade in 1964.
In 1972, the festival was incorporated by the Secretary of State 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 continued to grow 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 an intense feeling of 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 and 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 was not held for three years starting in 2019 but made its big return in 2023.
Holding true 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 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 a 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 is 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.