Juneteenth festivals and fun coming in suburbs, but organizers see more than celebrations

  • Gloria McCarthy of Elgin, a performer who goes by Gina East, holds the flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of 54 flags in the 2020 Juneteenth African Festival of Flags car parade in Elgin.

      Gloria McCarthy of Elgin, a performer who goes by Gina East, holds the flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of 54 flags in the 2020 Juneteenth African Festival of Flags car parade in Elgin. John Starks | Staff Photographer, 2020

  • A Juneteenth African Festival of Flags car parade in Elgin included 54 flags of African nations.

      A Juneteenth African Festival of Flags car parade in Elgin included 54 flags of African nations. John Starks | Staff Photographer, 2020

 
 
Updated 6/17/2022 9:30 AM

Suburbanites will mark the year-old federal and state holiday of Juneteenth with a weekend of festivals, parades, flag-raisings and other celebrations. But the holiday observed on June 19 means so much more, leaders say.

Juneteenth coincides with Father's Day this year. But historically, it marks the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, in 1865 to take control of the state and to proclaim and ensure all enslaved people were freed.

 

The troops' arrival came 2½ years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War, in which President Abraham Lincoln declared all slaves in Confederate states free. Slavery was not completely abolished until the 13th Amendment was adopted, six months after the arrival in Galveston.

Last May, Illinois became one of several states to make Juneteenth a state holiday, and President Joe Biden the following June signed legislation declaring it a federal holiday -- the first new federal holiday since 1983, when Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created.

Juneteenth -- also known as Emancipation Day and Freedom Day -- is the longest-running African American holiday and akin to the Fourth of July independence celebration for Blacks.

It has been a part of the national fabric as "one of America's oldest celebrated holidays," said Earl Dickens of Streamwood, vice president of the African American Coalition of Kane County, which is organizing Elgin's Juneteenth festival. "Right now, it is getting a lot of publicity because it is just being recognized by (more) states."

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This year's Elgin celebration will take place Saturday and Sunday at Festival Park in downtown. It will feature music, food, local vendors, a DJ battle, gospel ensemble, a KidZone and a tribute to fathers, he said.

Dickens, 50, a father of three adult children, said teaching younger generations about the significance of Juneteenth is important to preserving African American history.

"We've always been in tune with what has happened with our ancestors, our heritage and our history," he said. "Juneteenth, for the community, is a marker of success and progress. We now have opportunities that our ancestors sacrificed their lives for. It's always good to reflect on how far we've come as a community."

Many suburban communities saw a resurgence of Juneteenth celebrations in the wake of the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, and Black Lives Matter rallies nationwide. That momentum has somewhat waned, but several towns have adopted Juneteenth proclamations, and there are commemorations aplenty this weekend, including in Aurora, Bolingbrook, Franklin Park, Lindenhurst, Mount Prospect, North Chicago, Schaumburg and Waukegan.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It's about time. This event is long overdue," said Mount Prospect resident Joann Smith, one of the organizers of the Juneteenth celebration in town and a member of B.R.E.A.T.H.E., formed in the aftermath of Floyd's killing.

"My ancestors found out they were free in 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation (took effect) in January 1863," Smith said. "Now, here we are over 150 years later, we are finally celebrating our freedom."

Smith said Juneteenth T-shirts will be sold at the event, while Chef Jose of Sunrise Grill will provide food. Mount Prospect police officers are expected to attend, though the village is not sponsoring the celebration.

To many involved in the civil rights struggle, Juneteenth is much more than a holiday observed by Blacks.

"This is a day for all Americans -- Blacks, whites, Latinos -- to celebrate African American history and rejoice in our freedoms," said Thomas Armstrong, 80, of Naperville, a former Freedom Rider. Groups of civil rights activists participated in Freedom Rides throughout the South in 1961 to protest segregated bus terminals.

Registering people to vote is as much a Juneteenth tradition as serving food and drinks in the color red, symbolizing "the blood shed by slaves," Armstrong said.

"It's too important for me to narrow it down to traditions," he said. "We can't allow this country, out of hatred, to work against itself. We try to push this idea of not forgetting, to register and vote. On June 19, we celebrate. On June 20, we fight. We fight because too many politicians remain silent while the blood of our children runs in the streets."

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