Tarril Slater and Rhonda Williams know the weight that one date – June 19 – holds in their history.
“It’s the Fourth of July for black people,” Williams said.
For many, June is a month that is celebrated widely. Otherwise known as Pride month, June celebrates the achievements LGBTQ people have made in the face of violence, and tomorrow, it holds the day of African American independence, Juneteenth.
Weeping Mary Baptist Church held a Juneteenth Celebration and Black Business Expo on Saturday, June 15. At the event, owners of small black businesses were able to promote their products and services while also celebrating the history of African American culture.
What is Juneteenth?
April 12, 1861 was the beginning of the Civil War between the northern (Union) and the southern (Confederate) regions of the United States. The war was originally started due to the disagreement between the two regions when it came to the westward expansion of land and slavery.
On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which was the official document that proclaimed the freedom of slaves.
After the Proclamation was signed, formerly enslaved people were still working on plantations to round up the few cotton stocks for two years before June 19, 1865, as many weren’t made aware of their freed status immediately. The surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee marked the end of the Civil War on April 9, 1865.
Juneteenth marks the freedom of all African American slaves on June 19, 1865, after the news of their freedom reached the last of the slaves in Texas.
To celebrate the holiday, black communities come together to celebrate their freedom by cooking soul food and spending time with family and friends, but in Tuscaloosa this year, public events were limited.
Low Attendance at Celebration
Although the event was held from noon to 6 p.m., attendance of the local Juneteenth Celebration was low compared to past events.
“Not as many people came out for the free information,” said Jade Nicole, the event planner and DJ at 92.9 WTUG. “I would say roughly 200 over the course of the day came out.”
Originally slated to be held at Stillman College, the Juneteenth celebration was relocated to Weeping Mary Baptist Church on 20th Street in an open field. The Black Business Expo consisted of small black businesses and organizations from Mississippi, Tuscaloosa and surrounding areas.
“The turnout is not what I envisioned. Only about 100 people showed up for the event,” said Trey Lanier, a member of Men of Integrity, an all men’s ministry created to uplift young black men.
Attendees had a range of theories as to why the turnout was low.
Too Hot to Celebrate
“I think it was the heat,” Nicole said. “Even in the surrounding neighborhood people were saying, ‘It’s a little too hot for me right now, but as soon as I can, I will get there.’”
The day of the lengthy celebration had a high of 92 degrees and a low of 63 degrees.
“It was really hot,” Slater said. “I think it should’ve been an inside event.”
While some attendees couldn’t weather the heat, others noted that the event didn’t reflect the spirit of the holiday.
Celebration or Business Expo?
“Where’s the celebration?” Slater said as he arrived at the event. “If it was set from twelve to six, it should have been popping from twelve to six.”
Slater, along with other attendees, said the Juneteenth Celebration and Black Business Expo did not cater as much to the celebration as it should have.
“It was disappointing,” a Birmingham citizen said, “If I was someone that did not care about Juneteenth and coming to this event I would not care even more.”
While the event saw a low turnout of regular attendees, many businesses were there to promote themselves and one another.
“The biggest success would probably be from the vendors themselves,” Nicole said. “A lot of them made connections with each other to support each other’s business.”
Although the exposure for the black businesses was good for themselves and the community, some attendees said there seemed to be little genuine celebration of the historic holiday.
“It mostly focused on black business, which I have no problem with,” Slater said. “But for somebody that wants to celebrate Juneteenth, I don’t think the focus should have been on the black businesses.”
Better Luck Next Year
Nicole said future summer celebrations held by the station would have to be indoors or in the evening, in hopes of more people showing up.
“I think the relocation may have deterred some who were looking for ‘a party,’ as Stillman tailgates are known to be ‘LIVE’” Nicole said, though noting that the vendors were pleased with the turnout from an “untapped market.”
Many of the attendees said they hope for two things in regard to another Juneteenth celebration in the future: that it will be inside and that it should be an actual celebration.
“To me personally I think it should’ve been like a concert with different choirs and speakers talking about the history of Juneteenth,” Slater stated.
Looking for Juneteenth celebrations? The nearest ones are in Bessemer and Birmingham, starting tomorrow. You can view them here.