Champaign Juneteenth celebration opens conversations about race

Community+members+play+smooth+jazz+music+at+the+Champaign+Park+District%E2%80%99s+Juneteenth+celebration+at+Douglas+Park+on+Saturday.+The+district+has+hosted+a+Juneteenth+celebration+for+15+years.

Faith Allendorf

Community members play smooth jazz music at the Champaign Park District’s Juneteenth celebration at Douglas Park on Saturday. The district has hosted a Juneteenth celebration for 15 years.

By Faith Allendorf, Interim Summer Editor-in-Chief

On Saturday afternoon, the Champaign Park District held its annual Juneteenth celebration at Douglass Park to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. Juneteenth — now declared a national holiday — recognizes the date that the last enslaved African Americans in Texas were informed of their liberation under the 13th Amendment. 

The park was full of hundreds of individuals who seemed to enjoy the celebration’s activities. There were food trucks, children’s games, large water sprinklers, live music, more than 30 vendors and more. 

Although Juneteenth became a national holiday a year ago, according to Robert White, who is the senior program coordinator with the Champaign Park District, the district has been hosting the community Juneteenth celebration for 15 years. 

“I feel like the community itself has always been in support of Juneteenth,” White said. “But on a bigger scale, I think it being a federal holiday brings more awareness to it.”

Mary Howell, a reservation coordinator with the Champaign Park District, said the district wanted a diverse crowd — a goal it was able to achieve. 

“There’s a lot of family coming out here to give everybody a chance to enjoy themselves — not only just African Americans but everybody,” Howell said. “I want everyone to be able to celebrate on such a gorgeous day.” 

Bernice Harrington, a 60-year Champaign resident, said while events honoring Blackness have always been important, celebrations are more critical than ever. She explained that the state of race relations in the U.S. is going “backward.”

“I never thought that in my life, I would experience this,” Harrington said. “It’s like you take two steps forward then 10 steps back, and I think the current climate we’re living in makes people feel comfortable saying what they want, and it’s bringing out more hate.”

A poll conducted after the Buffalo, N.Y., shooting in May that killed 10 Black people revealed that 66% of Black Americans feel that white supremacy has gotten worse over the last five years. Three-quarters of respondents said they fear a physical attack motivated by racism. 

According to data from the FBI, in 2020, the U.S. saw 7,759 crimes, 36% of which were race related. This was the highest number of hate crimes since 2008.  

“I don’t feel comfortable just going anywhere anymore because you just never know what is going to happen,” Harrington said. “Because of the madness going on in this country, you have to be careful.”

Harrington also mentioned how important racial education has become and how events like the celebration are necessary to learn about Black history — a part of history that lawmakers are making decisions on. 

“It’s nice to celebrate our culture, especially in these times where people are trying to keep the country from knowing about our history,” Harrington said. “It’s even more important that our children learn about it.” 

White said that racial education is necessary because, with it, the full story of American history can be told.

“Black history is American history because slavery is American history,” White said.

However, Harrington is critical of the Juneteenth holiday. She said the government’s declaration of Juneteenth is “performative” and minimizes the ongoing struggle of Black people.

“I think it’s great that they’re celebrating this, but I’d rather have the federal government pass the voting rights legislation,” Harrington said. “It just seems like they’re doing everything besides what is really needed.”

McCarrick Fitzgerald, a candidate for membership in the Party for Socialism and Liberation in C-U, said one thing the party is aiming to do is break down and rebuild the systems that take advantage of Black people. Such systems include for-profit privatized prisons and the police force.

Fitzgerald also said that while she is white, Juneteenth is just as important to her. The holiday is a reminder of what Black people have overcome, but it is also a way to see what needs to be done next. 

Even though she was anxious about “taking up space at an event that’s meant to celebrate Blackness,” Fitzgerald realized she would have to get over her worries to make progress.

“Community means showing up for people who aren’t just like yourself,” Fitzgerald said. “If we really want to be in this together, then I have to get over that discomfort … and show that I’m here to support the Black community that’s in my area.” 

Through the clamor of the jazzy music and conversation, the word “community” floated around the crowd during the celebration. 

To White, “community” is a big part of Juneteenth.

“Just being involved in the community as a whole serves the community because everyone is part of it no matter their race, gender, religion or sexual orientation,” White said. “It’s all community.” 

 

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