‘Every aspect of our culture in one place’: San Diego’s rich Juneteenth tradition

The Cooper family has been hosting its Juneteenth celebration for so many years, it is a mainstay tradition in southeastern San Diego. But as national recognition for the holiday, which commemorates the true end of slavery, has grown in recent years, so has the Coopers’.

Several hundred people gathered Saturday at Memorial Park for the Cooper Family Foundation Juneteenth Art & Culture Celebration.

Once held as a block party on Imperial Avenue, this year’s event greatly expanded with vendors and families stretched into every corner of the park on Ocean View Boulevard.

The celebration included a drum line, a procession of Pan-African flags, dancers, musical performers and the Teye Sa Thiosanne African Drum & Dance Company, which performing a libation, or an offering to the spiritual world, led by 71-year-old Kadumu Moyenda of Golden Hill.

The celebration is San Diego’s annual showcase of Black art, history and culture and independence. It was one of several events over the past few days around the county — from a freedom bike ride starting at the WorldBeat Center in Balboa Park to a film night hosted by Artists 4 Black Lives San Diego to an NAACP block party in Oceanside, with more planned Sunday.

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On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers landed in Galveston, Texas, to report the Civil War had ended and all slaves were free. President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation more than 2½ years prior but, somehow, the news did not reach Texas — or it was deliberately withheld by plantation owners.

The opening ceremony included a procession of Pan-African flags.

The opening ceremony included a procession of Pan-African flags.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

One tradition says the messenger who was on his way to deliver the news to Texas was murdered by greedy plantation owners. Another version is that the federal government was complicit in allowing Texas plantation owners to continue to enslave people to receive the taxes yielded from more cotton harvests.

Juneteenth was finally made a federal holiday by President Joe Biden just days before last year’s commemoration. The federal holiday falls on Monday this year. County Supervisor Nora Vargas said county offices, too, would be closed Monday.

“The County of San Diego has given us all the day off on Monday to commemorate Juneteenth and what I’m going to ask everybody to do is I want you to spend your money in the African American community. I want you to go buy from our Black community,” said Vargas, who spoke at the event.

The San Diego commemoration of Juneteenth was started some 50 years ago by Sidney Cooper Sr., a businessman and community member in southeastern San Diego, one of the city’s largest historically African American neighborhoods.

Guests stop to look over an exhibit depicting the history of Juneteenth.

Guests stop to look over an exhibit depicting the history of Juneteenth.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Event organizers said Cooper Sr. “felt passionately about countering the devastating effects that centuries of oppression had imposed on his neighborhood … he wanted to be part of something positive that would unify the people of Southeast San Diego, and remind them of how strong, beautiful, and important they were.”

R.D. Brown, 60, who was seated under a shady tree enjoying gospel music Saturday, noted how much bigger the event has become in recent years. For his family, he said it’s about unity and being a part of the community.

“I think it’s that the community has come together more. (This event) use to be like a block party, and I am just so happy to see this many people here today,” Brown said. “This, by far, surpassed my expectations of it.”

Katina Harrison, 49, from Spring Valley, said she was drawn by the spiritual and family-friendly activities. There was a youth stage area where kids were sharing their music, for example.

“I’ve been attending the Cooper family celebrations for many years now and I’ve seen it grow,” Harrison said. “And just to come out and celebrate with our people and to celebrate culture and just to experience multi-generations of people getting together, it’s just very heartwarming.

“It’s definitely a spiritual experience,” she continued. “It’s just bringing all aspects: you bring the music, you bring the dance, you bring the gospel singing, you bring the bands and you bring every aspect of our culture together in one place.”

Girls enjoy line dancing to live music.

Girls enjoy line dancing to live music.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

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