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‘Grand Birthday Ball’ launches Lafayette bicentennial with style

Weekend soiree a prelude to national observance that stops in Fayetteville in 2025


Fayetteville’s namesake will live on in spirit as the Marquis de Lafayette’s Grand Tour of the United States sets out to light up cities across the nation with bicentennial celebrations that begin in New York City next July.

Fayetteville is on the list of stops with a plethora of celebrations leading up to a grand ball in March 2025.

“This is going to be a big deal,” said Hank Parfitt, a longtime Lafayette Society member and chairman of the bicentennial celebration locally. “Fayetteville was the first city named for the Marquis de Lafayette in 1783 and the only namesake he visited during his 15-month tour in 1824-25.”

Last weekend, the Lafayette Society hosted a smaller series of events for the 16th annual Lafayette Birthday Celebration.

Rebecca Russell, a local costumer and party planner, hosted Lafayette’s Grand Birthday Ball, which served as a preview of sorts to the kind of brilliant costuming and historical reenactments to come in the next two years.

Dozens of people in Regency era dress — long gowns and gloves for women, ostentatious jackets and pants for men — danced around SkyView on Hay on Saturday enjoying traditional music, food and drinks.

Russell, an Army spouse and mother of four, has been sewing since she was a girl. She started planning the ball a few months before she learned about the Lafayette Society.

“I had discovered Lafayette’s birthday was around the same time as my oldest son, Renton’s, birthday,” she said. “He would also be turning 19 this year, which was the age Lafayette was when he joined George Washington in the U.S. fight for independence. A little bit of research led me to the fact that Lafayette came back to the U.S. during the 1820s and so, voila, a birthday ball in the late Regency era made total sense.”

When Russell connected with Parfitt, it all came together for Lafayette’s Birthday Celebration weekend.

Other programs over the weekend included a concert featuring French composer Bizet’s “Carmen,” the American musical “Carmen Jones,” and a lecture by UNC history Professor Lloyd Kramer about why Lafayette’s 1824-25 visit was so important to America.

“We were so divided over the slavery issue, the contentious presidential election and just recovering from a series of bank and business failures,” Parfitt said of the time. “His talk connected the dots between the past and the present.”

Parfitt said lectures and other programs of this type will help the community understand why remembering Lafayette is so important to Fayetteville and the rest of the country.

“The Marquis de Lafayette was one of the most influential men in the American Revolution,” he said.

‘One of the good guys’

Lafayette Society President Arleen Fields joined the organization in 2001 and has served on the board of directors since 2008. She is assistant director of library services and archives librarian as well as a professor of information science at Methodist University, which hosts a Lafayette Collection. She got involved when she realized the importance of his role in history.

“Our Lafayette Collection is special, which is one reason I joined. It is part of my role at Methodist University, but more so, I thought he was a fascinating character,” she said. “I mean, he was one of the good guys, way ahead of his time. He was a staunch abolitionist and looked toward the middle ground. He wrote the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.’ He was an advocate for religious freedom.”

Fields said Fayetteville was a major part of Lafayette’s American history.

“There were so many stops in North Carolina, but this was the first place named for him,” she said. “He was only 26 years old in 1783. The American Revolution was barely over, and he was a hero. The officials in Campbellton and Cross Creek came together and decided to merge and name their new settlement Fayetteville.”

Chris Thrasher, professor of history and political science at Fayetteville Technical Community College, has served on the bicentennial celebration committee for the past year.

“I’ve primarily been involved in preparing for the bicentennial, which will be a huge celebration,” Thrasher said. “All across the country, the major cities that he visited are going to have celebrations commemorating his visit to remind people about his wonderful legacy.”

The March 4-5, 2025, celebration weekend will include the Lafayette Ball at Cape Fear Botanical Garden.

“March 4-5, 2025, marks 200 years to the day of his visit to Fayetteville,” Fields said. “Lafayette spent 15 months touring the United States, and we were one of the stops. …  He was like a rock star. I mean, it was a really big deal to have him here.”

Over the next two years, the Lafayette Society will host lectures, tours and concerts leading up to the national bicentennial celebration.

“He was an inspirational figure that we can look to going forward,” Thrasher said. “He was a man that was ahead of his time. Back in the 18th century, he was pushing for a democratic government. He’s reaching for the abolition of slavery, pushing for the idea that all people are created equal and that we should have equal rights. These are the great values that our country was founded on. We are going to have some great public events but also looking at doing some educational events and going out to the schools to talk with students.”

Fields said the Lafayette Society is about more than history.

“In fact, it’s not so much a historical society as it is a community engagement organization,” she said. “We want to invoke the spirit of Lafayette into our service work and try to get other organizations and institutions in the community on board. We have endowments at Methodist University and Fayetteville State University, and we are strengthening our partnership with Fayetteville Tech.”

Parfitt can’t wait for the bicentennial party to get started.

“We really hope that people come out to celebrate with us,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

For more information about the bicentennial celebration of the Marquis de Lafayette’s Farewell Tour or about the Lafayette Society, visit www.lafayettesociety.org.

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