'It's going to be a beautiful thing': Suburbs celebrate Juneteenth

  • Shirley Bassett is president of the African American Coalition of Kane County, which is holding a car parade featuring 54 African flags to celebrate Juneteenth. The original plan was to have a festival but that was postponed to next year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

      Shirley Bassett is president of the African American Coalition of Kane County, which is holding a car parade featuring 54 African flags to celebrate Juneteenth. The original plan was to have a festival but that was postponed to next year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • People lined up for food at Elgin's Juneteenth Festival in 2007. The African American Coalition of Kane County organized the festival until 2011 and is sponsoring a Juneteenth parade Friday.

      People lined up for food at Elgin's Juneteenth Festival in 2007. The African American Coalition of Kane County organized the festival until 2011 and is sponsoring a Juneteenth parade Friday. John StarKs | Staff Photographer

  • Alvis Henderson sang lead vocals with CW Souls of Aurora at the Juneteenth Festival in Elgin in 2006. The festival was set to relaunch this year, but because of COVID-19 a parade is being held instead.

    Alvis Henderson sang lead vocals with CW Souls of Aurora at the Juneteenth Festival in Elgin in 2006. The festival was set to relaunch this year, but because of COVID-19 a parade is being held instead. Daily Herald file photo

  • Heidi Graham, president of the League of Women Voters of Arlington Heights, Mount Prospect and Buffalo Grove Area, said the history of Juneteenth should be taught in schools. She is pictured here with her husband, Andy, earlier this year.

    Heidi Graham, president of the League of Women Voters of Arlington Heights, Mount Prospect and Buffalo Grove Area, said the history of Juneteenth should be taught in schools. She is pictured here with her husband, Andy, earlier this year. Courtesy of Heidi Graham

 
 
Updated 6/19/2020 9:15 AM

Shirley Bassett's birthday coincides with Fourth of July, which might lead one to assume it's her favorite celebration of the year, fireworks and all. Not so, the Elgin woman said: That honor goes to Juneteenth.

"This is even more exciting for me than my birthday -- and everybody parties on my birthday," said Bassett, 60, who is president of the African American Coalition of Kane County.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The coalition is holding a Juneteenth parade Friday in Elgin, one of multiple suburban celebrations planned including in Arlington Heights, Carpentersville, Glendale Heights, Naperville, St. Charles and Waukegan.

Juneteenth, which celebrates the end of slavery in the United States, is getting renewed attention in the midst of protests across the nation calling for racial justice. Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered flags to be lowered Friday. The day became a state holiday in New York this week, as it has been in Texas since 1980. There are growing calls to make it a federal holiday.

The date marks the arrival of federal troops in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, to enforce freedom for slaves, just over two months after the surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and nearly 2 years after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

Juneteenth is akin to an Independence Day celebration for the black community -- whose ancestors were still enslaved in 1776 -- but with one big difference: It's much less marketed and advertised, Bassett said. "We have to promote it ourselves," she said.

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Heidi Graham, a former English and theater teacher and president of the League of Women Voters of Arlington Heights, Mount Prospect and Buffalo Grove Area, said the history of Juneteenth should be taught in schools.

"Up until this year, I was one of the only white people I know who knew what it was," said Graham, 50, who said she only found out about it eight years ago thanks to a visit with her family to the Dallas Heritage Village.

Ariel Wills (center), then 13, of Elgin, laughed during the 2004 Juneteenth Festival in Elgin. The festival was set to relaunch this year, but because of COVID-19 a parade is being held instead.
  Ariel Wills (center), then 13, of Elgin, laughed during the 2004 Juneteenth Festival in Elgin. The festival was set to relaunch this year, but because of COVID-19 a parade is being held instead. - Rick west | Staff Photographer

Learning about the history and stories of people of color is only the start, Graham said. Her group launched an "Anger to Action: Speak Up!" webinar series last weekend that includes a campaign asking police and fire departments, schools and municipalities to hire more people of color and allocate money to diversity and inclusion initiatives and training. The next webinar is July 9.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Erica Shannon of St. Charles said recent police killings of black people nationwide prompted her to organize a Juneteenth celebration Friday in St. Charles. The event will shine a light on black culture, history, art and music while promoting the message of the Black Lives Matter movement, she said.

"There are people of color who live out here, but when it comes to community togetherness and events, there's nothing that really highlights the African American community specifically," Shannon said. "I think it's going to be a beautiful thing for the suburban area in general to have that cultural experience where everyone can learn something, enjoy and appreciate something, and come together for a good cause."

In Naperville, a group of students from Naperville Central High School planned a Juneteenth event in conjunction with others across the nation under the The Movement for Black Lives umbrella. "Defend Black Lives" also will include the call to end mass incarceration, implement police reform and strengthen education about black history, organizers said.

"As a white person, I think I really need to help bring the attention and realize, 'Hey, just because you aren't a person of color, this is still something that should be important to you and you should pay attention to,'" said incoming senior Abby McKenna, who plans to talk about anti-racism and worked with friends to start an Instagram page called Naperville Youth for Black Lives Matter. "It's important to keep this movement going in Naperville."

Elgin's first Juneteenth Festival was organized in 2003 by a local community center and by the African American Coalition of Kane County from 2004 to 2011. A festival relaunch was planned this year with co-sponsoring from the city, but it was postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"What's going on with Black Lives Matter has definitely renewed interest in Juneteenth," Elgin Councilwoman Tish Powell said. "I sure hope that continues to evolve."

• Daily Herald staff writers Lauren Rohr and Marie Wilson contributed to this story.

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