Organizer: Biggest Juneteenth yet

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Despite Saturday’s humid heat, the Juneteenth festivities on West Ninth Street had the biggest turnout Key Fletcher has seen, she said.

Fletcher is the director of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, which coordinated many of Saturday’s events throughout Little Rock as part of Juneteenth in Da Rock, in honor of the holiday that African Americans have celebrated for decades, even though it was not declared a federal holiday until 2021.

Juneteenth marks the date — June 19, 1865 — that Union soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas, with news that the Civil War had ended and that enslaved people in that state were officially free.

The holiday is still a celebration of freedom, said Erica O’Neal, a Little Rock businesswoman who sold jewelry and handbags at the corner of Ninth and Gaines streets.

“Freedom to celebrate who you are, freedom to celebrate your struggles, freedom to celebrate your accomplishments and achievements,” O’Neal said. “It’s freedom to be you. It really makes me feel good to see so many people out here celebrating.”

West Ninth Street was the hub of a thriving Little Rock Black business district throughout much of the 20th century, so the three blocks between Broadway and State Street played host to a wide range of food, art, clothing and other vendors Saturday. Fletcher said 130 vendors were present in partnership with the Mosaic Templars, and the Building Black Communities fund provided 40 free vendor booths to grant recipients.

Supporting Black artists and entrepreneurs is a high priority for the Mosaic Templars, Fletcher said.

Brandi Washington drove in from Hot Springs to set up a booth for her clothing store, The Skirt Shop 101. She said she appreciated the networking opportunity, as well as the ability to “celebrate being free in a safe environment with like minds.”

Mosaic Templars has held Juneteenth in Da Rock for 13 years, but the past few years have amplified the need to recognize Black history, Fletcher said.

“People are looking for a way to recognize the importance and achievements of African Americans,” she said. “I think in the past few years we began to see almost a reckoning in our communities [about] the importance of African American history.”

In addition to the street market, Juneteenth in Da Rock included a 5K race through some of Little Rock’s most historic Black neighborhoods, live music and dancing throughout the day at the Main Stage set up on Arch Street, interactive displays at The Hall for children to learn about the history of Juneteenth and a screening of the Arkansas PBS documentary “Dreamland: Little Rock’s West 9th Street” at the Ron Robinson Theatre on River Market Avenue.

Juneteenth in Da Rock was a largely virtual event in 2020 and 2021 because of the covid-19 pandemic, Fletcher said, and the increased attendance this year might have been a result.

The recognition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday last year might have also fueled the celebrations this year, she said.

“We’ve never needed anybody to tell us that our history is important, but we need legislation so that people don’t forget,” she said.

DeMonica McClurge’s teenage daughter thought Juneteenth was a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr., so McClurge decided they needed to drive to Little Rock from Sherwood on Saturday as both a fun and educational outing, she said.

McClurge had never celebrated the holiday before, and she said it felt “like celebrating the 4th of July from here until the 4th of July.”

“It’s a celebration of my ancestors and who they were and where we’ve come,” she said.

Little Rock saw other festivities Saturday independently of Juneteenth in Da Rock. The Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission held a gathering on the state Capitol steps Saturday morning, featuring a keynote speech from Broadway Joe Booker of radio station KIPR-FM, 92.3, “Power 92.”

Just before Booker started his speech, police ordered attendees to evacuate the Capitol premises due to an apparent bomb threat. The event resumed a few minutes later at the intersection of Capitol Avenue and Woodlane Street.

Little Rock police got several calls reporting threats in different parts of the city Saturday, department spokesman Sgt. Eric Barnes said, but officers checked each scene and did not discover any explosives or other threats. Furthermore, none of the reports indicated the threat was directly related to a Juneteenth celebration.

Police traced many of the calls to a woman in North Little Rock who suffers from mental health issues and has made false reports with police before, Barnes said. North Little Rock police were alerted of the false reports and are looking into providing mental health care for the woman through a social worker, he said.

When Booker was able to start his speech, he recounted the difficulties of getting the information about the end of slavery to Galveston, Texas, since some Confederate soldiers refused to surrender after the Civil War ended.

“As African Americans, I don’t think a lot of us think of the 4th of July as our freedom day,” he said.

The Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission is a division of the Arkansas Department of Education meant to promote the legacy of the civil rights icon.

The commission values the involvement of young people in its cause and in Saturday’s event, which included singing and dancing, commission Executive Director DuShun Scarbrough said.

“It’s important to teach them the reason we celebrate Juneteenth, as opposed to just celebrating it,” he said. “I find it important to empower youth to be change agents.”

Doris McPhee Jackson brought her two teenage nieces to the Capitol for their first Juneteenth celebration to teach them the meaning of the holiday, she said.

She has lived in Little Rock since 1983 and watched local Juneteenth celebrations grow over time, she said.

“Everybody can participate in Juneteenth,” McPhee Jackson said. “Everybody has a part of history in Juneteenth and that’s how I see it. As we do it year after year, it gets bigger, and we get more diverse communities coming together.”

Information for this report was contributed by Grant Lancaster of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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