MODESTO — The sound of step dancers' stomping feet on a raised stage filled the air in Mellis Park outside the King-Kennedy Memorial Center. Amplified rap, praise and other music carried well beyond, into the surrounding neighborhood.
But looking from that stage into what they said was a smaller-than-expected crowd, some of the performers at Modesto's Juneteenth celebration on Saturday worried that the holiday's message isn't resonating in nearly enough ears.
"I thought there would be more people out here," said Tasha Williams, a worship leader at The House, after taking the stage to perform an original song, "The Purpose for Your Pain."
"Never give up on life," she sang, "never give up on your dreams, never give up on you." Fitting lyrics at a celebration of black Americans' struggles and successes.
And those who heard her cheered and clapped loudly. But there were perhaps a couple hundred people in the park a fraction of the city's roughly 8,000 black residents, and fewer than some observers believe have been at celebrations in recent years.
Williams thinks the turnout can be attributed to a declining awareness and appreciation of Juneteenth, which commemorates the day in 1865 when the last slaves in Galveston, Texas, learned they were free more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863.
She was raised in Alabama and says black history is much more celebrated in the South. She strives to instill that appreciation in her children 10-year-old Aciemarie and 12-year-old Giovanni but wonders if black Americans in general are doing the same.
"Who knows what it's going to be in 20 years," Wilson said. "We could be grandparents telling our grandchildren about a holiday that's nonexistent."
It's important to keep Juneteenth alive because "it's a celebration of remembrance of where you could have been if things had not changed," she said.
Thinking of her life, she added, "I would not be leading worship at a church that's majority Caucasian."
She believes connecting black youths with their "rich and beautiful" history could "change some of the negative values" they exhibit.
SheErica McKenzie, 19, who performed with the Prayer Mission Church Steppers dance group, had the same thought. She said Juneteenth isn't just about freedom won 150 years ago, but about making the most of that freedom today.
"There are people who don't want to vote the majority of black people don't vote," McKenzie said.
She said she also sees many black people routinely head to the back seats on buses. "Why sit at the back of the bus?" she said. "I sit in the front or the middle. We've fought for too much to sit at the back of the bus.
She said the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wouldn't like what he'd see, were he alive today.
"He took a bullet for the nonsense happening today?" McKenzie said, referring to black youths involved in gangs, violence and drugs. Through choices youths make about everything from music to the way they dress, they need to respect themselves, others and their elders, she said.
"People are forgetting about respect," she said.
Some youths, however, clearly are receiving and embracing the Juneteenth message, thanks to family and church. Among them, three Mark Twain Junior High students who performed with Christ Unity Church's Starlight Choir.
Ruby Simpson, 14, said Juneteenth is a time to think about not just how far black Americans have come, but about how much better the world could be without racism and violence. "It's black people coming together with other people to connect," she said.
"Juneteenth is about freedom and unity," added Angelic Pollard, 12. It's about black people working for their futures, not, as their ancestors did, working just to improve the lives of slaveholders.
"My mom and my cousins taught me we would not be here if the slaves weren't freed. We wouldn't be in school getting an education," said Corasia Robinson, 13. To her, Juneteenth is about being with family, praising God and celebrating freedom.
Juneteenth is not a religious holiday, but God and Jesus were front and center in the performances and remarks made on stage Saturday. Why? Because, as McKenzie put it, through the history of black Americans, "God gave us the strength to keep pushing on."
Bee local news editor Deke Farrow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2327.