Sounds of bagpipes, revving three-wheelers, soul and funk music and stomping cheerleaders rang out in Northeast Portland’s King neighborhood Saturday morning as more than 500 people led a parade down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, celebrating the city’s 50th annual Juneteenth Oregon festival.
This year marked several firsts for Juneteenth Oregon: the first festival in-person since the outbreak of COVID-19, the first time hosting a two-day festival and the first time the day is celebrated as both a federal and Oregon state holiday.
“It’s about time,” said Juneteenth Oregon director Jenelle Jack, 44. Jack said she became the festival’s director in 2016 after the death of her grandmother, who led the festival before her. “I’m excited. This is something that my grandma’s been working for – pushing for. It’s about time.”
Juneteenth commemorates the end of legalized 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 Galveston, Texas, to enforce the emancipation order. In 2021, Juneteenth became a federal holiday, which will be observed on June 20 this year.
Attendees and parade participants gathered about 11 a.m. at the Safeway on Northeast Ainsworth Street, including two clown performers, Nikki Brown, 49, and Kynisha Ducre, 47. Ducre said she flew from San Jose to Portland specifically to participate in the Juneteenth Oregon festival with her mentor, Brown.
Brown said she created her clown persona, “Nikki Brown Clown,” 10 years ago at the request of her aunt, Doris Rush, who was one of the original Juneteenth Oregon organizers. As a clown, Brown says she helps remind people to celebrate the holiday despite its dark history.
“It’s a reminder that it’s actually a U.S. celebration … and what people need to understand is it wasn’t the freedom of the slaves, it was freedom of American civilians,” Brown said. “I feel that I’m completely powered by my ancestors who couldn’t dream that I could be walking in the middle of the street as a free human.”
One of the parade leaders was 66-year-old John Bryant, the Grand Master of the Sons of Haiti St. Joseph’s Grand Lodge, dressed in a crisp black suit and gold, white and purple regalia.
“This day is very special to me and to our organization because this is the actual day that we were free,” Bryant said. “We were supposed to be free before that, but this was the actual day it really happened, so it’s a big thing to me – even though I wasn’t born yet.”
For 52-year-old Dana Spears-Talbert, this year marked the first time she and her 14-year-old daughter, Laylah Spears, have participated in Juneteenth celebrations. As a lifelong Portlander, Spears-Talbert said standing among the swelling crowd on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd brought up a lot of “high emotions.”
“It makes me think about our history, where we came from, where we are today and what we need to get to our future,” she said. “I want my daughter, Laylah, to see that this is what history is.”
Western lanes of traffic were blocked on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd as hundreds marched south toward Lillis-Albina Park. Community organizations and governmental agencies were represented among the crowd, including a TriMet bus, Portland police cruisers and a Portland Fire & Rescue truck carrying Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty and Chief Sara Boone.
“It’s fabulous – one of the first opportunities to get together with the community,’’ said Hardesty, as she waved and blew kisses to nearby attendees.
About a dozen children from the Rose City Pep Academy stepped to music with their hands on their hips and white paint under their eyes.
Diamond Rodriguez-Lanz, 12, said she joined the local dance academy to do more stepping and dancing while also being part of a community. As a lifelong Portland resident, Rodriguez-Lanz said the recognition of the holiday set a good example for the future.
“I like that people, not just people of color, are helping us and we’re not by ourselves,” she said.
Clusters of people sat or stood along the sidewalks lining the parade route with folding chairs and umbrellas, cheering and sometimes accepting candies tossed toward them by the crowds marching by.
Allen Benton, 53, said he and his mother, 72, watch the Juneteenth parade together every year.
Benton said he learned about Juneteenth in the 1970s while attending Northeast Portland’s Black Education Center, and that the holiday has since taken on a more festive, celebratory tone.
“It’s a new holiday to everyone for everyone else – for the American public – but the African American community, we’ve known about it for years,” Benton said. “The Black community, we’ve struggled trying to emerge into regular American society and finally people are starting to recognize that we do have parades, we do have things happen in our community that are great, we have contributed a lot to this country so it’s about time that everybody understands.”
For the past 30 years, 82-year-old Mariah Taylor said she has sat at the same corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Killingsworth Street. Taylor, who is a survivor of the Vanport flood, waved, cheered and doled out compliments to each group that marched past.
This year’s parade was a far cry from its first event 50 years ago, when the full parade lasted just eight minutes, Taylor said.
“It’s about time – better late than never,” Taylor said about the newly created federal holiday. “America has a big debt it owes us for that period of enslavement, but we still have not arrived … we still do not have the freedom, the equity, and the parity. “
David Harris, a longtime Portland resident, said the state still needed to make great progress to correct its ills against people of color. Still, Harris, 70, said he was grateful to see more people of color in government, pointing to Boone and Hardesty as they drove by.
Some parade participants held the blue, white and pink transgender pride flag alongside the red, blue and white Juneteenth flag – recognizing the simultaneous celebration of Portland Pride happening in downtown Portland.
Within the parade was Babatunde Azubuike, 34, who is executive director and founder of Black and Beyond the Binary Collective, a community center and social services organization for Black Queer, transgender, intersex and gender non-binary people in Southeast Portland.
Babatunde said Pride Portland’s decision to schedule their event the same day as Juneteenth created a conflict for some people – especially Black members of the LGBTQIA+ community – who felt forced to choose between the two celebrations.
“We’re out here to represent for our Black people, Queer people, LGBT folks,” Babatunde said. “We feel like we shouldn’t have to choose whether we’re Black or Queer, so we showed up here and we’re bringing our gay pride to Juneteenth.”
Rain showers started pouring in earnest over parade participants as they arrived at Lillis-Albina Park on North Flint and Russell streets, greeted by about 100 tents, two bounce houses and a concert stage. A singer welcomed attendees with a rendition of the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley then took to the stage to hand a formal proclamation recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday.
“You have your senators behind Juneteenth all the way,” Wyden said, lifting up a blue document and passing it to an Juneteenth Oregon organizer.
DJs on stage provided a soundtrack for the festival as attendees perused food and wares made by local Black vendors and artists.
Kim Blanchard, 54, said Juneteenth Oregon was a “teaching moment” for her younger family members.
“It’s a part of our heritage and part of our upbringing,” Blanchard said. “I think it’s most important to teach them and make them aware where we were and how far we’ve come.”