As it has for 45 years, the Juneteenth Celebration came with young talent, good food, gospel songs and the wisdom of a hard history passed down by elders.
Juneteenth, historically the commemoration of the end of slavery, took place Friday and Saturday at the King-Kennedy Memorial Center. Friday night’s talent show was followed by a Saturday program of guest speakers, singers, youth dancers and a barbecue.
Greg Savage, a member of the Sankofa Theatre Co., spoke of the day’s significance, citing a seven-point list from 1906 urging blacks to vote, respect others, send their children to school and assume other duties. Voting rights are once again being challenged, he told the crowd.
He reminded the group of the hardscrabble lives of freed slaves, especially those in the South facing a raft of racist laws. “They call them black laws, and they were instituted to keep blacks down,” Savage said later.
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He cited an 1866 Louisiana law that made it illegal for blacks to be unemployed. Jobless folks faced a $50 fine if caught congregating, Savage said. “When you’re unemployed today, $50 is a lot of money. Just think how much it was back then.”
The history matters, he said, because moving forward takes knowing “where you are and where you came from.” Segregation, civil rights marches and much that is remembered mostly from grainy black-and-white newsreels happened in his lifetime, said the 62-year-old Savage.
“This day, we’re celebrating a time we can be together, because there was a time when we couldn’t be,” he said.
Elsewhere around the park, a Black Business Expo, community information booths and a bounce house vied for attendees’ attention.
At one booth, Jacque Wilson answered questions about the Advocates for Justice mentoring program working with Modesto City Schools.
He recalled a Juneteenth celebration 35 years ago, when he had his first public speaking experience at age 5. Now an attorney, Wilson said with a laugh, “I never realized I would be doing it as a living.”
The King-Kennedy center was the hub of the community for decades, and its directors were the leaders who gave advice and solace to young blacks, he said. “They were our mentors before there was a mentor program. Everything we learned, we learned right here,” Wilson said.