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Festival Honors Liberation of Country’s Last Slaves

Tuesday June 17, 2003

Berkeley celebrated its 17th annual Juneteenth festival on Sunday. Sponsored by the Adeline-Alcatraz Merchants Association, the day was one of both celebration and education. 

“Any event that brings black people together to stimulate them to think about our present, past and future is a good thing. If we can do it for one day, we can do it for the next 364,” said festival goer Rasheedah Mwongozi. 

The festival commemorates President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863. But reform, in the midst of a bloodied war that divided a country, was not immediate. News was slow to spread, and it was not until June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, that the last slaves learned they were free. 

On Sunday, vendors stretched along Adeline Street, from Alcatraz to Ashby avenue, selling items that ranged from paintings and crafts to African instruments, crafts and Negro Baseball League memorabilia. Copies of the Emancipation Proclamation were also on display. Attendees roamed between two stages—the youth stage, hosted by Sean Vaughn Scott of the Black Reporatory Theater, and the main stage, hosted by local businessman and actor Lothorio Lotho. The hosts quizzed the crowd, which numbered in the thousands, about black history and interjected uplifting messages between acts. 

The Buffalo Soldiers occupied a prominent space on the Alcatraz side, where tents were set up across from horses that kids and adults could pet. Men dressed in period uniforms were eager to tell the story of an ignored contingent in the United States Army, which served from 1866 to 1912, in peacetime and in war both along the western frontier and in conflict overseas.  

Tables manned by local organizations included PeaceAction, the Berkeley Black Fire Fighters Association, East Bay Track & Field Club, African American History and Alameda County State of Emergency African American (AIDS) Task Force.  

For Los Angelean Frank Harris Sr., 84, attending the event has become a tradition. His grandson, Robert Haney, said:  

“The music is great, the ambiance wonderful. There’s a good vibe here, so we just continued to come each year and sit in the same spot.” 

Harris reflected that in Ferriday, La., where he was born, the black population celebrated Juneteenth on July 4, not June 19, because that was the day the plantation owner traditionally would “kill a cow and give the sharecroppers ice cream.” 

Joy Holland, a Berkeley resident, said what this year’s Juneteenth lacked was a sense of the ritual, customs and ceremonies associated with the 138-year-old holiday celebrated in most states across the country. 

“Juneteenth is an institution in Texas,” Holland said. “It recalls the horrors of slavery, a history that is being lost on our children when we’re one step from being slaves again with Homeland Security, homelessness, miseducation, unemployment.”