The current push to formalize Juneteenth as a federal holiday is a fairly new development, but the idea is quickly gaining traction. That trend has only intensified in 2020, arguably the most tumultuous time for racial politics since 1968. As activists around the country have fixed their bayonets for the uphill charge against police brutality and systemic racism, they have supplemented their righteous fury with a new appreciation of their own history, seizing on the deep and profound legacy of Black Excellence that has percolated beneath the surface of American culture for more than 200 years.
June 19, 1865 was the day that the Black community of Galveston, TX became the last group of slaves in America to be given official notice of their freedom. The news had traveled slowly, following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, and slave states were not officially liberated until the Civil War ended in April 1865. By this point, Lincoln was dead, and the first stirrings of Reconstruction had begun, followed soon after by the brutal backlash that led to Jim Crow, the founding of the KKK, which engaged in blatant domestic terrorism, virtually unimpeded, for nearly 100 years, a process that only really ended with the passage of Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s.
All that is to say that Juneteenth, as we think of it today, is a fairly modern concept, although it was being celebrated as far back as 1866. While the occasion is still not officially recognized by the local, state or national government, it has been a popular cause for celebration at the community level for a couple generations. The 155th anniversary of Juneteenth will be the most widely-celebrated in American history. A number of these celebrations are taking place in Jacksonville throughout the weekend, a city that’s placed a crucial role in the epochal events of recent weeks.
Festivities begin Friday afternoon on the city’s Eastside with an event put together by Tanya Grace, who moved here in 2019. She quickly fell in love with the community and its rich history. The event takes place at 1344 Florida Avenue, at the corner of Florida Ave. and A. Philip Randolph Blvd, a site that hosted race riots in 1969. “Even fifty years after these events occurred, this particular community/area remains impacted from the loss and trauma,” says Grace. “Our current events show that there are great opportunities to show compassion and care in many communities of color, like the historic Eastside, across our nation.”
Festivities revolve around the groundbreaking ceremony for Grace’s latest venture, the Soul East Wellness and Empowerment Center. “Groundbreaking is a traditional ceremony in many cultures that signifies architectural ceremonies that are a representation of breaking the earth,” she says, “to make a sacred deposit that would endorse a firm foundation.” There will also be spoken-word by Ty Scott King, as well as music by YKD, singer/songwriter Jessica Leigh Walton and local icon Mama Blue. This event, in particular, marks a celebration not only of the occasion, but of the community itself, which doesn’t get nearly enough attention.
“Jacksonville’s Historic Eastside is rich with history and culture,” she says. “Many prominent African-Americans who contributed to our history resided in this area, including Zora Neale Hurston, A. Philip Randolph and Bob Hayes. The residents on the Eastside take pride in their heritage and history and the spirit and soul of the community continues to rise above the destruction and defeat that has plagued the area almost as the phoenix rises from the ashes and transforms into something new, beautiful and majestic. This area is Jacksonville’s hidden jewel.”
The parties and programs proceed on parallel tracks. The 6 Feet Away Gallery, which was recently featured here, offers up “Juneteenth: Understanding and Celebrating 155 Years of Freedom” at their space at 1745 W. 15th St. on the Northside. Artist Roosevelt Watkins III will display Afrocentric art pieces that center on local history, while activist Shawana Brooks breaks down the history of the day and its particular importance to this community.
Juneteenth weekend will also see a series of shindigs centering on the Melanin Market, an institution developed several years ago by veteran activist and current State House candidate Angie Nixon. It begins Friday afternoon, with a block party at 1818 N. Davis St. in Springfield, before moving over to 4819 Soutel Dr. on the city’s Northside the following day. The regular market forces will be augmented by music, dance and drag featuring Graciela Cain, aka DJ Geexella (geexellamusic.com), who has emerged as a cultural institution in her own right since starting her DJ career three years ago.
“To me Juneteenth was the rough start to a lifelong battle of black people gaining equity,” she says. “It is glorified as a moment when slaves were ‘set free’ but they didn’t have anything to lean on or any financial gain, even though they built an entire country. Their loss and pain was not gifted with anything other than being let go from slavery. It’s a bitter sweet feeling for me.”
Other performers include Sweet Tea, Aysha B Dupree, Gizelle Alexzandria Cliche, Tonya Marie Richardson, Constance and Toi Alexzandria. Being the most well-known, Geexella is the main draw for Friday night’s event, but they give primary credit to another artist and activist, the singularly fab Bebe Deluxe. “She wanted to curate a show that highlighted Black queens and myself in this city,” Geexella says. “I was really honored. I know [Bebe] is doing it because she knows right and is always doing work to improve herself to be an amazing ally.” The market will also play host to the Jacksonville Community Action Committee, which has helped organize a lot of the recent protests, and other initiatives dating back several years. Those who cannot attend can watch the event live on Zoom; the link can be found on Geexella’s Facebook page.
Also on Saturday, the New Florida Majority will be partnering with the First Coast Leadership Foundation, Bring It Home Florida and Bad Chick University to put on a New Orleans-style “Melanin Mama’s” second line march from 1 to 2pm at 5045 Soutel Dr, preceded by a meet-and-greet from 13:30 to 1. There will be song and dance, in the classic NOLA tradition, as well as a celebration of the lives of Black women murdered by the police. The regular BLM march will also take place downtown. If you’re down there, be sure to check the historic Ritz Theatre and Museum, which will be open from 12-5pm with free admission and special Juneteenth-themed exhibits.
The weekend winds down in casual fashion with family day at American Beach on Sunday, June 21. This is also being put together by the Melanin Market, and you will be reading more about the glory of American Beach right here in a few weeks. (Incidentally, some people have recently theorized that the Mayan calendar was improperly calculated, and that June 21 is actually the date on which they had predicted the world would end. This is probably not true, but the way 2020 has been going, anything is possible, so be extra-sure to enjoy every moment.)
Taken individually, or as a whole, all of these events constitute an emulsified mix of activity and activism, in a matter quite fitting for something like Juneteenth. In addition to the actual events, this weekend also provides a great opportunity to immerse oneself in the vast array of Black-owned and –operated businesses across Northeast Florida, from bars and clubs to artists and retailers, and of course restaurants. More generally, it’s worth taking the time at this crucial point in history to reflect on the past, present and future of The Struggle, and try to keep that same energy all year.
Hull On Earth is a column by journalist and man-about-town Shelton Hull, which appears irregularly in Void Magazine and on Voidlive.com.