Freaknic's Wild Ride

It started out as good clean fun for black college students at HBCUs in the early ’80s. Then things went really, really wrong. Now it's making a comeback.


Freaknic.  Mention the name of the famous-some would say infamous-Atlanta spring break festival to those who attended, and you get a myriad of responses.  Some remember the early years of the 1980s, when students from HBCUs from throughout the Southeast could meet and fellowship during a four-day picnic. Others remember the ugliness that plagued the later years, when the city of Atlanta did all it could to discourage the festival.  Either way, Sharon Toomer, one of the Freaknic founders, has seen it all.

"It all started back in 1982 as a way for DC students in the AUC [Atlanta University Center] to have a picnic for spring break," said Sharon Toomer, who was a Spelman College student and member of the DC Metro Club at the time. 

 "A lot of us couldn't afford to go back home to DC, so we decided to have a picnic in Atlanta."

And thus began the first Freaknic, which was held at Atlanta's Piedmont Park, with about fifty students attending from the historically black AUC, comprised of Morehouse College, Spelman College, Morris Brown College and what is now known as Clark Atlanta University. 

The name Freaknic was suggested by a DC Metro club member as a way to tie into the popular 1980s term "freak," which was being used in hit songs like Funkadelic's "(Not Just) Knee Deep (Freak of the Week)" and Chic's disco hit, "Le Freak."  Soon, students from HBCU schools as far flung as Tuskegee University in Alabama to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania were making their way to Atlanta to celebrate spring break.

And Freaknic filled a niche in the market, as most spring break destinations like Panama Beach, Daytona Beach, and Cancun, Mexico, were geared toward white college students.  There wasn't an exclusive place for African-American students to blow off a bit of steam before returning to the rigors of school.

For the first ten years of Freaknic, that word of mouth kept the numbers of attendees reasonable, with the original fifty guests growing to a few thousand. 

But things would change in 1992, when Freaknic entered the pop-culture lexicon, from the down and dirty-2 Live Crew's Luke Skywalker gave it a shout-out-to the wholesome-it was mentioned on Bill Cosby's spin-off, A Different World, too.  Freaknic became a part of the African-American zeitgeist, turning an intimate picnic into an event where an estimated 200,000 people attended at the festival's high point in the mid '90s. 

But with the rapid expansion, the fun-loving tenor of Freaknic changed from good clean fun among college students to something darker.  Oakland hip-hop legend Too Short moved to Atlanta in '93 and remembers being shocked by his first Freaknic. 

"I'd heard about Freaknic from friends in California who threw their own party that was based on Freaknic.  So when I moved to Atlanta in 1993, they insisted that I just had to go to Freaknic," Too Short said. "I thought it was just like a regular picnic."