Chicagoans celebrate Juneteenth, reflect on Black history: ‘This is who we are’

Ruby Scott Smith has been celebrating Juneteenth since long before it was as widely known as it is today.

On Saturday, the 87-year-old danced to a drum line and rode a float in Garfield Park as part of the 10th annual African Awareness and Appreciation Parade in honor of Juneteenth.

For the festivities, Madison Street was adorned in black, red and green balloons and music thumped as the shimmering floats made their way west and onlookers danced and waved.

The parade is one of several Juneteenth events around the city this week, honoring the events of June 19, 1865, when the last enslaved people were freed in Texas two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued to end slavery.

Smith, from Naperville, attended the parade with her daughter Becky Smith and friends Valarie Watkins and Sharon McFadden. The group has attended the parade since its inception in 2014.

“We wanted to bring the community together for something positive,” said McFadden, whose husband, the Rev. Donald McFadden, started the parade 10 years ago. “We hear so much negativity about our community. That’s not who we are. This is who we are.”

The parade, which drew a crowd of about 150 spectators on Saturday, has grown in recent years as Juneteenth has become more popular and recognized as a federal holiday.

“[Before] people would say, Juneteenth?” McFadden said, and Smith responded “What’s that?”

McFadden continued: “Once we know more we can understand more about who we are as a people.”

A picnic at Garfield Park followed the parade, which featured dancers from the Westinghouse College Prep Goldettes in gold costumes that glinted in the sunlight, as well as floats from historically Black colleges and universities and various companies.

Sheila Delaney, who lives along the parade route in Garfield Park, was unaware the parade was happening Saturday. But she walked outside with her 4-year-old grandson Amir Moore, and the celebration caught her eye.

“I told my grandson, ‘Hey, look at them!’” she said. “It’s nice, it reminds me of the Bud Billiken parade.”

Arthur Turner brought his wife and two daughters to the parade and rode on the Transport Link float.

“This is a big deal for our family and a big deal for our community,” he said. “People seem to be really happy to see the parade coming down Madison every year.”

Just over a mile south, the Juneteenth Village Fest was getting underway in Douglass Park, with music, carnival rides and vendors. Attendees perused T-shirts and jewelry under white tents and scoped out the selection of food while waiting for musical performances to get started.

“I’m just here for the music, the food, the vendors. It’s just a good time for families to get together and the weather’s great,” said attendee Jahaan Randolph. “I’m just happy to be Black.”

Many participants said that in conjunction with the festivities, they take the opportunity to reflect on Black history and teach younger generations about the realities of race in America. Rendel Solomon, who runs a nonprofit that gives stock to young people and did a TedX talk titled “Sharecropper to Shareholder,” brought his 2-year-old daughter Savannah. He said he wanted her to celebrate, but also learn about her ancestors who worked in cotton fields in Jim Crow-era Mississippi.

“This little child will know nothing of picking cotton in a field, in part because of their fight,” he said. “It looks a little bit different than what my granny experienced, but there’s still injustice.”

The festivals, while an easy way to enjoy summer and relax, are also a starting point for conversations about race and history, he said. The Solomon family is planning to attend as many Juneteenth events as possible.

“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if it weren’t for this festival,” Solomon said.

Randolph and her friend NJ Williams sought to strike a balance between celebrating and reflecting.

“It’s another chance to reiterate to children the lessons they might not be learning in school,” Williams said. “They can celebrate, they can stay in their community.”

Randolph added: “It’s always a celebration to be Black because of the history in this country and in this world. It comes with a lot of pain that sticks around generations. We can take these tears and turn them into a smile.”

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