Celebrating Freedom

Tucson's Juneteenth festival marks a historic day with spirit and entertainment.

Juneteenth celebrates the freeing of the slaves in the United States. Though the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863, the Confederacy didn't surrender until April 1865. Southerners then had to be informed of President Lincoln's proclamation. The last of the announcements was made in the state of Texas on June 19, 1865.

"It took two years before they finally got the word to the last of the slaves," said Burney Starks of the Tucson Juneteenth festival planning committee. "And to me that is a very significant date in our nation's history ... This doesn't in any way diminish the significance of the 4th of July but this should be another day that people recognize as a very important part of our American history."

And because of Juneteenth's 137-year history, it is thought of to be the oldest African-American holiday in observance in the United States.

"We're building our celebration [of Juneteenth] back up," said Starks. "About five years ago we were running 15,000 people over the weekend at the festival. Since then ... we're somewhere between 4,000 to 5,000, maybe 6,000."

The drop in attendance at Tucson's Juneteenth celebration isn't due to a lack of interest in the holiday, but because of a single act of violence. "At any type of event you always have idiots there," explained Starks. "Some idiot came out and was drinking, pulled out a gun and shot a little girl."

After the shooting, attendance to the event declined. Tucson's Juneteenth festival planning committee lost much of its sponsorship and recently lost their grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts that was used to pay performers.

"The sad thing for me was [that] there's not a lot of African-American events going on here," said Starks. "And we have so little support as it is that people didn't look at it for what it was," a single, random act of violence that marked the only serious incident in the 31 years of celebrating Juneteenth in Tucson. "But you still had people saying, 'It's going to hell, people are going to get shot.' But we haven't had any other serious incidents since then."

Also, with a dwindling African-American population in Tucson, there has been an added loss in attendance. "Our African-American community is very dispersed. When I moved to Tucson in 1966 you could clearly see where the African-American populations were," said Starks who sites the African-American populations as being located in South Park, Western Hills, Pueblo Gardens and A Mountain. "The only such pocket now ... is at A Mountain," says Starks.

According to Fie Gregory, the Juneteenth scholarship fund chairperson, the A Mountain area was the first place in Tucson where African-Americans could own their own homes. "Two people owned a majority of the land that became African-American communities," said Gregory: Hiriam Banks and James Benefield. Both Benefield and Banks were black men whose dream was to have a place where African-Americans could own homes. Both men acquired land to sell to African-Americans. Banks homesteaded and owned the land bordered by San Juan Trial, 36th Street, Mission Road and La Cholla, whereas Benefield owned the land directly north between San Juan Trail and 22nd Street.

Besides the A Mountain area, the African-Americans are now mostly grouped with other races along economic boundaries rather than racial ones, according to Gregory. "Tucson is not like a Los Angeles or like my home Chicago," said Gregory. "You cannot really say where are the African-Americans. ... It's very well mixed."

Gregory, a 30-year resident of Tucson who has attended the Juneteenth festival since some of the earliest celebrations in the Old Pueblo, remembers the festival's small beginnings. Many of the blacks in Tucson at the time had emigrated from Texas, where the celebration of Juneteenth is much larger. "They used to celebrate it by going down to the [Santa Cruz] River," said Gregory. "People just brought food from their home."

As the celebration grew, the festivities eventually moved to its current location at Kennedy Park, where vendors will sell food and, despite a tight budget, the Juneteenth planning committee has booked entertainers for the event, which remains free to the public.

But just because the event is free, don't expect to be harassed for donations from either the Juneteenth celebration or the scholarship fund, said Starks. "We want people to come out, enjoy and take in the history of the festival."

To combat the loss of financial support, many performers are performing for free at the two-day fiesta, which will include gospel, R&B, hip-hop, '50s music and traditional African dance. But Starks describes Friday's festival as having a more religious feel and Saturday's celebration as "an all-out secular event."

A quilt made by Odiemae Elliot, mother of famed basketball professional Sean Elliot, will be raffled off to benefit the Juneteenth scholarship fund that depends on donations from churches and the local business community. Grants and contributions to the fund have been limited since the September terrorist attacks, according to Gregory.

Comments (1)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Tucson Weekly

Best of Tucson Weekly

Tucson Weekly