Juneteenth celebrates the final emancipation of slaves after the American Civil War. In June 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and notified hundreds of thousands of slaves that they’d been freed two years prior by the Emancipation Proclamation.
For more than a century, the occasion has been celebrated across the country with a focus on African-American community empowerment. In Denver, the event used to be a week-long affair, complete with a carnival, that beckoned friends and families across the nation to Five Points for a festive reunion.
According to Five Points documentarian and activist Brother Jeff Fard, Juneteenth festivities faded in the 90s at the mercy of neighborhood violence and economic pressures. He, for one, is delighted that organizer Norman Harris III and a “new generation” of leadership has re-established the festivities. This is Harris’ sixth year at the helm, and the first that he’s presented awards to community members, including Fard, for their leadership and advancement of Denver’s African-American community.
In all, Harris recognized 10 people, both absent and in attendance. His keynote speaker, social justice attorney and Manual high school alumni Ryan Haygood, was one honoree who traveled across the country and home to Denver like so many used to when the event was a week long.
Much of the event looked like a normal parade and street fair. People wandered through a sea of vendors with beer and large turkey legs. But Haygood’s speech revealed the deeper social imperative that’s central to Juneteenth celebrations.
“I think for us, Juneteenth is really a visual symbol that you can be free at law, but it’s meaningless if your freedom is not enforced,” he said, referencing the slavery that persisted in the Confederacy despite Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation.
Then, linking that 19th Century struggle to the present, he said, “If we want to fight police brutality, if we want to interrupt systems that deny us human dignity and respect…that’s gonna have to happen from the ground up in our communities.”
And it seems that groundswell that Haygood called for is, in part, being answered by the mere resurrection of Juneteenth celebrations on Welton Street. Brother Jeff Fard said he has “nothing but praise” for organizer Norman Harris for bringing back what he said is an important tradition. He hopes the seeds Harris has planted might grow into another multi-day event.
There’s plenty of work to be done to keep the tradition alive, but Harris is optimistic.
“We all have to work together,” he said. “We pride ourselves on bringing the people together to have something like this.”