'Rejoice': Eugene Juneteenth Celebration to return Sunday for third year

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On Sunday, Americans will observe the nation's youngest federal holiday – Juneteenth, which became officially recognized last year by President Joe Biden.>

Juneteenth is the oldest national celebration that commemorates the ending of slavery and has long been celebrated in parts of the nation with parades, barbecues, competitions for "Miss Juneteenth," rodeos, races and block parties, according to Juneteenth.com, a resource website.

The Eugene-Springfield area can look forward to a celebration at Alton Baker Park from noon to 6 p.m. Sunday filled with performances, activities, educational resources and food for purchase. This year, the free Eugene Juneteenth Celebration's theme is Rejoice. Last year, it was Turning Trauma Into Joy.

"This year we'll just focus on Black joy as it is, without the trauma, without having to focus on the ugly, the negative and the bad," Production Coordinator Drea Smith said. "Let's just completely focus on joy, rejoicing and what that looks like to us in our local community … it's singing, it's dancing, movement, and bringing Black-owned businesses together and Black food vendors together."

Xcape Dance Academy performs at Juneteenth festivities June 19, 2020.
Xcape Dance Academy performs at Juneteenth festivities June 19, 2020.

Dr. Jonny Lake and Kokayi Nosakhere will be the keynote speakers. Both are fathers, which is fitting as the celebration also lands on Father's Day. One component of the celebration will be the honoring of Black elders through recognition and gift baskets. Xcape Dance Company, the only Black-owned dance company in town, will be headlining the event for the first time. Smith is eight months pregnant and still looks forward to joining parts of the nearly hourlong dance set.

"It's kind of a timeline of the history of music and different genres of music, and that leading us to where we are today. So, that's going to be a very powerful and high-energy performance," Smith said. "I can't wait for people to see it."

Related:Black leaders warn there is a wrong way to celebrate

Why did Juneteenth become a federal holiday?

The holiday commemorates the day news of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed enslaved African Americans in secessionist states, finally reached enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, two years later on June 19, 1865. The inaugural Juneteenth celebration began in 1866. The holiday, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, spread across the country as African Americans migrated away from the South.

Despite being widely celebrated in some parts of the country, the holiday came to nationwide prominence in 2020 amid nationwide protests after Minneapolis man George Floyd and Louisville, Kentucky, woman Breonna Taylor were killed during encounters with law enforcement. Both Floyd and Taylor were Black. Their deaths spotlighted ongoing racial inequities in the justice system as well as the legacy of slavery in encounters between Black people and the police.

The 2020 Black Lives Matter movement spurred local organizers to put together Eugene's first official Juneteenth celebrations since the 1990s. This year will be the third annual Juneteenth Celebration.

Congress passed The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act in June 2021, a day after the Senate passed the bill with unanimous consent. Biden signed the bill into law on June 17 – two days before Juneteenth.

How should it be celebrated?

Juneteenth is a celebration —"Happy Juneteenth Day" is considered an appropriate greeting to mark the occasion, according to the Juneteenth website.

Black residents make up a small percentage of Lane County, about 1%, making the need to create a space explicitly celebrating Black presence and joy important, Smith said.

The local NAACP is hosting a bike ride to the event that will start at the historic Mims House 10:30 a.m. If bikes need sprucing before the ride, Shift Community Cycles will provide bicycle safety checks and minor repairs for participants. PeaceHealth Rides bikes will be provided for the event if participants don't have a bike.

Alton Baker Park is an especially meaningful place to host that space.

Facing segregation in the 1940s, some of Eugene's first Black families built their own homes on the north bank of the Willamette River near where the Ferry Street Bridge now stands. On July 16, 1949, Lane County commissioners made a demolition order for the area to make way for the Ferry Street Bridge. The area's only Black neighborhood was bulldozed and families were forced to relocate.

Smith wants the event to be a space for all residents to learn, as well as a way to preserve local Black history while supporting future generations as the local Black community grows.

"I hope that people can come and gather and learn and enjoy the presence of the Black community here in Lane County, without centering themselves," Smith said. "I also hope that Black people are able to preserve this through their own cultural history and upbringing that's passed on, generation after generation."

USA TODAY reporter Chelsey Cox contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Tatiana Parafiniuk-Talesnick at Tatiana@registerguard.com or 541-521-7512, and follow her on Twitter @TatianaSophiaPT. Want more stories like this? Subscribe to get unlimited access and support local journalism.

This article originally appeared on Register-Guard: Juneteenth: Where to celebrate the June 19 holiday in Eugene, Oregon