Jones Park was the site where lots of families, friends and local leaders from in and around East St. Louis gathered Saturday afternoon to honor the lives and celebrate the memories of enslaved people who were freed June 19, 1865.
The event, known as Juneteenth, or Freedom Day, is when Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed in Galveston, Texas, and let everyone know that the war had ended and the slaves were free. The news was delivered two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which became official Jan. 1, 1863.
“It can not be overlooked. It is our (black people’s) history,” said Tracy Johnson, the founder of the Juneteenth celebration in East St. Louis.
Johnson said East St. Louis made the event a legal holiday three years ago. But he and his family started celebrating Juneteenth on Father’s Day 20 years ago. And after some people stopped showing up to celebrate because of other Father’s Day plans, Johnson said they started to celebrate the events separately.
“Juneteenth ... is the oldest African-American holiday, and we need to acknowledge it,” Johnson said. “Our ancestors died for our freedom. They need to be acknowledged, respected, honored and paid tribute to.”
Stephanie Bush, CEO of Community Development Sustainable Solutions, and Emerson Park Development Corporation partnered to make the Juneteenth event a success. The event was scheduled to last until 8 p.m.
When the slaves were freed, in 1865, they held rodeos, went fishing, had barbecues , payed baseball. Juneteenth celebrations almost always focused on education and self-improvement.
Children ran about laughing and playing. Family members gathered together and enjoyed some personal times. Several speakers engaged those in attendance with their thoughts on why it is important that Juneteenth be recognized and taught to the children and any adult who is unaware of the holiday.
State Rep. Latoya Greenwood, D-East St. Louis, said, “It is important that we recognize our heroes today and always. This history is not only for adults, but it is for the youth as well. If you don’t know your past, you can not move forward. Juneteenth is about independence and freedom.
Greenwood read a proclamation in which she recognized Stephanie Bush, Terrance Taylor, Johnson Shamika Croom and Vicky Kimmel, executive director of the Emerson Park Development Corporation, for their work with Peace Initiative Summers to keep the peace in the community and for their efforts to lift up Juneteenth in the community.
LaShyrah McDonald, 20, was named Juneteenth Queen. Smiling and blushing as she talked to a reporter, she said being picked to be the queen for such an important historical event was an honor. She said, “They could’ve chosen anyone, but they chose me. It’s humbling.”
McDonald said she wants everyone to come together in that way everyday and “stop the killings.”
“We need to come together as one as a black community. Things were different back in the day. People cared for each other. They had peaceful good times. Now at some events we have fights. As we celebrate and honor those who gave their blood, sweat and tears for us to enjoy freedom and a better life, I hope it is in the hearts and minds of everyone to seek peace and bring about unity.”
Cahokia Mayor Curtis McCall attended the event.
“We’re here because we want to show East St. Louis that we support them. We are one. We are all one community — one people,” he said. “We want our surrounding communities to know that Cahokia is changing. We are reaching out to our neighbors.”
McCall said he hopes more Cahokia residents will participate in the event in East St. Louis every year.
“All people should recognize and celebrate the lives of the slaves and the day slavery ended. It is important to know everyone’s history. The more you know about a person or their history, the better the relationship will be between you and them.”
McCall said he would have liked to see a larger crowd attend the event.
“It’s something a lot of people don’t know about. I am going to do my part to make sure more people are aware of the history and the event that happens here each year,” he said.