Clara Peoples brought Juneteenth to Oregon 50 years ago; now her family carries on the tradition

Clara Peoples brought Juneteenth to Oregon 50 years ago; now her family carries on the tradition

In a file photo from Nov. 30, 2007, Clara Peoples poses with her daughter, Lynda Peoples (wearing a hat), her granddaughter Jenelle Jack (back right), her five great-grandchildren, from left, Gregory Tolston, 6, Emony Robinson,9, Kiyara Tolston, 8, Tamia Robinson, 3, Jaelen Robinson, 7, and her Juneteenth co-organizer, Ora Lee Green (in blue).LC-

By Samantha Swindler | The Oregonian/OregonLive

Four years ago, Jenelle Jack was looking for a sign.

She was touring office spaces for the new home of Juneteenth Oregon, the organization founded by her late grandmother Clara Peoples. Ever since taking over leadership of the nonprofit, Jack had felt her grandmother guiding her.

Peoples, known as Oregon’s “Mother of Juneteenth,” had died at the age of 89 on Oct. 5, 2015. Those numbers stood out when Jack saw the former car dealership at 1005 S.E. Washington St.

“My cousin told me when you find the building for your program, you’re going to know,” Jack said. “The address is the day she died, so I knew this was the building for us.”

This year, the organization will celebrate Portland’s 50th annual Juneteenth event Saturday and Sunday with a free festival of food, live music, a beer garden, kids activities and close to 100 vendors.

And Juneteenth isn’t just happening in June. That former car dealership is now the year-round home of the Miss Juneteenth leadership program for girls. A companion Mr. Juneteenth program for boys will launch this fall.

Jack said these programs are important, so the next generation understands the importance of Juneteenth.

“Once we go, the younger people need to carry the baton,” she said.

woman sits at conference table in front of laptop
Jenelle Jack at work at the offices for Juneteenth Oregon.

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Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865 – more than two months after Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered and two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation – Union troops arrived in the coastal city of Galveston, Texas, to enforce the emancipation order. In 2021, Juneteenth became a federal holiday, which will be marked June 20 this year.

“Juneteenth is the nation’s second Independence Day,” Jack said. “We celebrate the Fourth of July, but in 1776, the slaves weren’t free.”

But when Clara Peoples left Muskogee, Oklahoma, and arrived in Vanport to work in the town’s shipyards, she was surprised that many of her Black co-workers had never heard of Juneteenth.

“When she came here and realized there was no type of celebration going on, she went to her supervisor and asked if they were able to celebrate during their break at the Kaiser shipyards,” Jack said.

On June 19, 1945, Peoples hosted one of the Portland area’s first Juneteenth picnics for several hundred shipyard employees. Over the years, long after she left the shipyard, Peoples continued to find ways to celebrate Juneteenth, including a series of celebratory dinners at Bethel AME Church.

black and white photo of woman opening car trunk to show trunk full of food
In a 1987 file photo, Clara Peoples shows a trunk full of food she’s collected to distribute to Portlanders in need.Oregonian

“She wasn’t one to take no for an answer,” Jack said. “She was very sincere, passionate. She was short (4 feet 11 inches), but she was a giant.”

Beyond her dedication to Juneteenth, Peoples established one of the nation’s first food banks through the Community Care Association, earning her a five-page feature spread in Ebony magazine in 1971. Jack remembers people lining up outside her home for kitchen staples. People in Northeast Portland knew her as “the bread lady” who always handed out bread, doughnuts, cheese and other snacks from her home or her car.

“We grew up volunteering,” Jack said. “We knew when she called on us, we had no choice but to go help.”

In 1972, Peoples and Ora Lee Green organized Portland’s first Juneteenth parade and public celebration. It’s carried on ever since.

Peoples’ niece, Doris Rush, took over Juneteenth planning in 2011. Since 2015, it’s been under the direction of Peoples’ granddaughter.

group of kids pose together along a street
The Oregon Juneteenth Parade in 2019 rolled through Northeast Portland.Mark Graves

“I’ve got pretty big shoes to fill,” Jack said. “I’m trying my hardest. I’m just trying to make her proud because I know she’s up there watching.”

Jack has built upon her grandmother’s legacy with the Miss Juneteenth program, serving girls and young women ages 6 through 19. Participants meet every other weekend from August through May. They learn about financial planning, writing resumes and college applications. They take field trips to OMSI or Oaks Park, and volunteer at a local food pantry, just as Peoples had done years before. Portland Fire Chief Sara Boone, who will serve as grand marshal of this year’s Juneteenth parade, was a recent guest speaker.

girl seated in front of small easel with paint brush looks up to her teacher standing behind her
Katarina Bush, 7, looks up to instructor Pamela Ojini during a Miss Juneteenth workshop on June 4. Miss Juneteenth is a leadership program for girls that meets twice a month at the Juneteenth Oregon offices in Portland.

“My favorite part is the opportunity to give back to the young women of Portland,” said Danielle Holmes, who teaches the teens in the program. “I hope they are learning to break out of their shells because, especially growing up in Portland, self-confidence is a very hard thing to establish on your own out here.”

Many of the participants are from Portland, but some come from as far away as Salem and Eugene.

“I love the environment, getting to know everybody,” said 17-year-old Fatima Brotherson-Erriche. “I live in Beaverton, and there’s not a heavy Black community, and it’s really nice to be around other Black girls. I love everybody here.”

The program year concluded with the Miss Juneteenth pageant, held this year on June 12. The older participants competed for scholarships and a chance to go to the National Miss Juneteenth pageant in October. The youngest girls participated in the pageant but don’t compete. For them, the program is about building confidence and camaraderie.

“I tell them, ‘You’re not here because you’re pretty; you’re here because you’re showcasing who you are and what’s important to you,’ ” Jack said. “We’re trying to build them up.”

two girls in front row, more girls behind them, practice a dance routine
– Rina Tchivandja, left, andFatima Brotherson-Erriche r­ehearse a dance routine together during a Miss Juneteenth workshop on June 4. Miss Juneteenth is a leadership program for girls that meets twice a month at the Juneteenth Oregon offices in Portland.

Rina Tchivandja, 15, is in her third year in the program. She was crowned Oregon’s Little Miss Juneteenth in 2019 and competed this year for the Miss Teen title.

“At the beginning I was like, what is this all about? Because when I was 12 years old, I didn’t know a lot about Juneteenth,” Tchivandja said. “They didn’t teach me this in school. There’s Black History Month. You learn about Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, all those people, but we never learned what happened after the slaves were free, so that’s what I learned here.”

In 2021, Juneteenth Oregon sent its first competitor to the national pageant – and won. Aceia Spade, the outgoing Miss National Juneteenth from Eugene, will crown the 2022 National Miss Juneteenth in Texas this fall.

Juneteenth Oregon remains a family affair. Jack’s mom and sister are involved in planning the festival and youth programs. Between Jack and her sister, five great-grandchildren will stand ready to continue Clara Peoples’ legacy.

Jack has already told them to start learning the ropes. It’s up to the next generation to keep telling the story.

Juneteenth Oregon

The festival is from noon to 7 p.m. Saturday, June 18, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, June 19, at Lillis-Albina Park, at the corner of North Flint Avenue and Russell Street. Festivities begin with the Clara Peoples Freedom Trail parade, starting at 11 a.m. Saturday at Northeast Ainsworth Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The parade marches south on King then west on Russell Street, ending at the festival site. Admission is free. For a full lineup of music, visit juneteenthor.com.

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