In the year since the last Juneteenth, much has happened that will give this year’s events special relevance.
In Columbus, it marks the return of a celebration that began 24 years ago in relative obscurity and a one-year hiatus because of COVID-19.
In Starkville, it will begin with an unveiling of a sculpture at Unity Park and end with a jazz concert promoted by a former police chief convinced of the unifying power of music.
“I think Juneteenth has gotten a lot more attention because of the national incidents that have gone on over the past year,” said retired Starkville police chief Frank Nichols, who is sponsoring the jazz concert at Fire Station Park. “The murder of George Floyd provided a platform for people to learn more about Juneteenth. This year is also the anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre and then, last week, the United States Senate passed a bill to make (Juneteenth) a federal holiday. I think these celebrations are only going to get bigger and bigger because of that exposure.”
Likewise, in Columbus, events over the past year — including the removal of the Confederate Monument from the courthouse grounds to the completion of repairs and improvements to Sim Scott Park after the 2019 tornado — appear to have breathed new life into an event initiated by Lowndes County District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks in 1997.
“We’re excited to have this celebration after it had to be canceled last year, but to tell you the truth, I’m already looking ahead and planning for next year,” Brooks said. “It won’t only be the 25th anniversary of our celebration, by then it will be a national holiday. I think it’s going to be a huge celebration.”
The Columbus celebration kicks off with a DJ and music at Sim Scott Park, which has been rebuilt and renovated in the aftermath of the February 2019 tornado that left the park in ruins. Juneteenth will be the first major event at the park since the tornado. That event will run from 7-9:30 p.m.
Saturday events include two concerts, the first featuring three gospel groups from 4:30 to 7, followed by three blues groups from 7-10 p.m.
Brooks said about 20 vendors have reserved spots at the park so far.
Starkville, meanwhile, will host two separate events on Saturday.
At 11 a.m. Saturday at Unity Park, Juneteenth kicks off with the dedication of a sculpture depicting the role of protest marches in advancing civil rights, the opening of the Unity Park Little Library featuring books about local, state, and national civil rights leaders, and presentation of plaques honoring two local civil rights pioneers.
The Oktibbeha County Unity Park Advisory Committee is joining with the Oktibbeha County Chapter of the NAACP and the Starkville Oktibbeha Unity League (SOUL) to present the program.
The sculpture by local artist Dylan Karges is entitled ONWARD and was funded by the Unity Park Advisory Committee with support from a grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission.
“We are so pleased to have this beautiful and powerful addition to Unity Park that is a reminder of generations of Americans who have come together in marches here and throughout the country to peacefully advocate for change,” said Jeanne Marszalek, chair for the Unity Park Advisory Committee. “Dylan’s sculpture will inspire future generations to do their part as we continue the march toward greater justice, freedom and opportunity for all of our fellow citizens.”
The program will also feature the dedication of plaques for its two latest additions to the park’s wall — George W. Evans and the late Fenton Peters — who were chosen for the honor in January.
On Saturday evening, Nichols will hold the inaugural Jazz in the Park concert, featuring a Spoken Word competition and three jazz acts, from 5-10 p.m. at Fire Station Park.
“The idea really started back during COVID, when me and some of my fraternity brothers were talking about how great it would be to do something after COVID ended,” Nichols said. “The more we talked, the idea of having a concert seemed like a great idea for a Juneteenth celebration. Juneteenth isn’t just Black history, it’s everybody’s history. We wanted something that would bring our community together, and nothing does that better than music.”
Tickets are $10. For more information, contact Nichols at 662-418-9259 or by email at [email protected].
For Brooks, the growing awareness of Juneteenth is gratifying.
“When I was coming up as a kid, it was all about Eight o’ May (the day when Black slaves were liberated in Columbus),” he said. “There were huge celebrations in the Black communities. The churches all have programs. It was a really big deal. But nobody ever said anything about Juneteenth. I don’t think many people, even in the Black community, had ever heard of it.”
Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of the last Black slaves held in the U.S. which came at Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865.
“That’s a significant moment in our nation’s history, but one that a lot of people don’t know about or understand,” Brooks said. “That’s why, going forward, our plans won’t be focused just on a celebration, but education, too.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]