WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - A decades-long tradition of the North Carolina Azalea Festival has come to an end. The Cape Fear Garden Club decided over the summer to put a stop to its Azalea Belles program.
“A committee ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ was formed in June to examine and address any issues that we might work on to be more inclusive and representative of our community and the style of dress was an issue that was addressed,” said Sherry O’Daniell, president of the Cape Fear Garden Club. “As gardeners we have a nurturing and appreciation to the complexity of nature and our surroundings which includes our community.”
For 51 years, it was considered an honor for high school girls to serve as an Azalea Belle. Their duties during the five-day festival included lining walkways of local gardens, donned in Victorian-style hoop skirts.
“The Cape Fear Garden Club has been discussing the possibility of changing the style of dress for the past 4-5 years,” O’Daniell said. A more modern style of dress will expand that diversity and inclusion that we seek."
Earlier in the summer, a former Azalea Belle, Chloe Sinclair, who claimed she would have chosen differently had she fully understood the message conveyed by the Azalea Belle tradition, reached out to the Azalea Festival president and started a petition to garner support for ending the tradition; 582 people signed the petition on change.org.
Sherry O’Daniell, the 2020-2021 CFGC president responded with this statement:
“Responding as the Cape Fear Garden Club (CFGC), we have been working on this issue since I became president of the CFGC in June. It was in June when we formed the “Diversity and Inclusion Committee” (DI) whose objective is establishing a dedicated focus on diversity and inclusion priorities within the club. The DI committee is working with the Azalea Festival committee in creating change that will be more reflective of the diversity within our community. North Carolina is experiencing an upswing in positive Covide-19 cases which has impacted our ability to communicate to the more than 400 members; as we have by-laws and protocol that we must go through to make changes. We ask for patience as we make changes. We were planning on revealing our changes to the 2021 Azalea Garden Tour, our motto “Beyond the Garden Gates” along with artwork from a local young artist, and another new committee “Edible Gardening” which was formed in response to the pandemic and the increase in food insecurities in our community in September after our first club meeting for the fiscal year. The CFGC like many other entities and people in our country see that changes need to be made and are responding. Thanks you, Sherry O’Daniell CFGC president June 2020-May 2021."
On August 20, 2020, Sinclair wrote on change.org petition that the president of the Cape Fear Garden Club had emailed to inform her the final vote had passed and the Belles would no longer be a part of the festival.
O’Daniell said they had been discussing changing the style of the dress before the petition was submitted and that members made their decision based on several different considerations.
Debbie Scheu was a longtime seamstress for the Cape Fear Garden Club. She made dozens of the colorful dresses for close to 30 years.
“The girls of our community were focused on the community service and feeling like a Disney princess,” Sheu said Wednesday. “They wanted to a part of the Wilmington tradition. I will dearly miss my connection with the youth of our community.”
The Cape Fear Garden Club Azalea Belles have been a staple to the North Carolina Azalea festival since 1969.