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Juneteenth takes on new meaning during national conversation on social justice

The Teye Sa Throsanne African Drum and Dancers preform at a Juneteenth celebration in 2013.
(JEFF BROWN)

The long-observed holiday celebrates freedom for enslaved people post-Civil War

Many Black San Diegans this weekend will celebrate Juneteenth, as communities across the country address racial disparities through protests and demonstrations, and the world tries to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Juneteenth — a portmanteau of the words “June” and “nineteenth” — is celebrated as Juneteenth Independence, Liberation, Emancipation, Jubilee or Freedom Day, and commemorates the official end of slavery in the United States. It is considered the oldest observed African American holiday in the country.

While it is primarily celebrated within the Black community, SD Melanin founder Loren Cobbs said it should be more widely recognized by all Americans and observed similarly to The Fourth of July.

“People should know that Juneteenth is American history — this is not Black history, this is not ‘Black people history,’” Cobbs said. “America needs to know about her forefathers and her foremothers who were Black and who fought for this country, who toiled this land for free and who have gave their all.”

Even though the Emancipation Proclamation to abolish slavery was issued in 1862 and the Civil War had ended months earlier, it wasn’t until June 19, 1865 that slavery officially ended for all slaves throughout the country. Communication wasn’t as instantaneous as it is today and some slave owners had intentionally withheld the news from their slaves to continue exploiting their labor.

When Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce the end of the Civil War, the final community of slaves in America gained their freedom, sparking the creation of the holiday.

Since 2017, California has observed Juneteenth as a state holiday, joining other states throughout the country who also observe it. It isn’t a national holiday, but it is observed in every state except Hawaii and South Dakota.

People often celebrate Juneteenth with cookouts and the menu typically includes red foods like hot links, red velvet cake, watermelon and strawberry soda. The color red is considered an homage to the blood of those who suffered and died as slaves, but it can also be traced back to a West African symbol of strength, spirituality, life and death, according to Atlas Obscura, an online food and travel magazine.

This year’s holiday is occurring while the weeks-long series of protests continue locally and throughout the United States following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. Local event organizers said Juneteenth is a meaningful celebration of the progress minority communities have made over the past century and a half, as well as a reminder of the steps the country still needs to take to achieve racial equality.

“I know that because of what’s going on today, it may not seem like it’s a victory, but in itself it’s a sense that it’s a wrong that’s being righted,” said Satia Austin, North San Diego County NAACP chapter president. “The whole history (of slavery) in itself was something that shouldn’t have happened, and Juneteenth is saying that yeah, we can move on. We are citizens. We are people that have been here and are not going anywhere.”

The Cooper Family Foundation has hosted a Juneteenth event on Imperial Avenue every year for more than five decades. Maliya Jones said her grandfather Sidney Cooper Sr. started the local, annual celebration after moving to San Diego from Oklahoma, where he had grown up celebrating it.

Members of an African drum and dance company lead a Juneteenth parade in 2018.
Nigel Zuniga, center front, and other members of the Teye Sa Thiosanne Drum and Dance Company lead descendants of Sidney and Thelma Cooper, the patriarch and matriarch of the family that sponsors Juneteenth in San Diego during the Cooper Family Foundation’s Juneteenth event on June 16, 2018.
(John Gastaldo / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

What started as a small event among friends and family has grown to an annual street fair that typically includes vendors, community resources and musical performers. Jones, who is 22, has celebrated Juneteenth for her whole life, and while it is always a special event for her family, she said it seems even more significant this year.

“It is deeper now because of all the demonstrations that are going on,” she said. “It just reminds me to celebrate my Blackness, be aware, celebrate and serve my communities in the best ways that we can, and allow people to know that we’re here, we’re visible and that we’re heard, and we need to celebrate our day.”

Recent protests and calls for equality have inspired more mainstream recognition to observe Juneteenth. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents dockworkers at 29 West Coast ports including San Diego, will stop work Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Several national companies including Target, JCPenny, Nike, Adobe, Twitter and Square have declared Juneteenth a company holiday and employees will receive holiday pay for it starting this year.

Target headquarters in Minneapolis will be closed Friday in observance of Juneteenth, but stores around the country will remain open. Employees were given the option of taking the day off for full pay or working for time and a half.

“We recognize that the racial trauma the country is experiencing now is not new, but throughout recent weeks there has been a sense that this time is, and has to be, different,” said Brian Cornell, Target chairman and CEO, in a statement. “Juneteenth takes on additional significance in this moment. Moving now to recognize it on an annual basis — as a day to celebrate, further educate ourselves or connect with our communities — is one more important action Target can take as a company to help the country live up to the ideal of moving forward in a new way.”

Seeing the steps that people, organizations and governments are making toward equal treatment of citizens is renewing a sense of hope for Makeda Cheatom, executive director and founder of the WorldBeat Cultural Center in Balboa Park.

“Now we’ve seen that people are really understanding this from all nations — indigenous people, Mexicans, Black — because it’s hitting home,” she said. “This is hitting all of us from all over the world, and so people are more proud to be Black, more proud to be indigenous, and seeing that there’s hope.”

This year’s Juneteenth celebrations in San Diego will take on new forms to adhere to the social distancing requirements caused by COVID-19, but there are still several opportunities for people to celebrate the holiday.

Friday, June 19


The Old Globe and the George L. Stevens Senior Center will livestream their fourth annual Juneteenth performance from 12 to 4 p.m. on Facebook, YouTube and at https://bit.ly/OldGlobeJuneteenth. It will include video excerpts from past coLAB Juneteenth performances music, crafts and at-home activities, spoken word poetry, and an educational segment on the story and history of the holiday.

Donations raised during the event will support the George L. Stevens Senior Center, which offers activities and resources for seniors in the Skyline neighborhood.

Artists 4 Black Lives San Diego is holding a sit-in/sing-in at Balboa Park near the Park Blvd and Presidents Way entrance starting at 4 p.m. Local art will be display and performers will present pieces of music, dances, monologues and poetry for the audience. More information is available on Facebook at https://bit.ly/A4BLJuneteenth.

WorldBeat Cultural Center and the National Conflict Resolution Center will have a virtual Juneteenth Restorative Circle for members of the Black community to connect with one another from 6 to 8 p.m. The discussion will focus on connecting with others and healing the community. Visit https://bit.ly/WorldBeatJuneteenth for more information and the link to participate.

SD Melanin is hosting a Juneteenth bonfire and healing circle in a partnership with Black Boy Joy and TunnelVision Art , an art agency and collective of Black artists in Brooklyn. The organizations will host bonfires with performances by poets and artists in San Diego and Houston, Texas starting at 7 p.m. in both cities.

The location will be sent to guests after they have registered. For more information email team@sdmelanin.com or visit https://eventnoire.com/inheritance/ to RSVP.

Juneteenth beach picnic and bonfire planned for Friday at South Mission Beach.
On Thursday, June 18, 2020, Dominic Malone and Loren Cobbs from SD Melanin prepare to host a Juneteenth bonfire celebration on Friday night.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego Repertory Theatre will stream a conversation with radio personality Ahmed Dents and local, Black artists about their careers in theatre and experiences as Black Americans in the industry at 7 p.m. Visit https://www.sdrep.org/wearelistening.php for more information or to connect to the Zoom meeting.

Saturday, June 20


The North San Diego County NAACP chapter will host a virtual event on its Facebook page from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The event will include African drum performances, prayers and conversations on social justice through various panel discussions. To watch the event, visit https://www.facebook.com/NSDCNAACPBranch1086.

The Cooper Family Foundation is hosting a virtual Juneteenth celebration from 2 to 5 p.m. on Facebook Live and Zoom. The event will include a performance by African dancers and drummers, prayers from a local pastor, conversations with community members, and a blessing from women in the Cooper Family. Visit the foundation’s Facebook page at https://bit.ly/CooperFamilyJuneteenth to watch or connect to the livestream through Zoom.

Mothers honored on Juneteenth in 2018 by members of an African drum and dance performing group.
Mothers — including Thelma Cooper, front, Jewel Guest and Alice Smith — are honored during the Cooper Family Foundation’s 2018 Juneteenth event.
(John Gastaldo / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

SD Melanin will host its Kinfolk Garden Party and photoshoot with music by DJ Prodigee, Virr and other performers from 3 to 7 p.m. Through the social distance gathering, guests will need to “bring their own everything” including picnic food, blankets, silverware and dishes.

Guests will be separated into “pods” or individual sections by immediate household, they’ll be encouraged to wear masks when close to guests outside their household and physical contact between pods is discouraged. Photographers Amari Dixon and Jake Shuttlesworth will be on-site to capture portraits of guests and photograph the event.

Pods cost $30, covering admission for up to six people, and the location will be sent to guests after they have registered. Visit https://www.sdmelanin.com/events for more information and to purchase tickets.


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