Iowa City celebrates Juneteenth, marking the end of slavery in the U.S.

BY JOE HITCHON | JUNE 18, 2012 6:30 AM

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A crowd of approximately 200 people gathered in Mercer Park on June 16 to commemorate Juneteenth, the oldest known celebration marking the end of slavery in the United States.

The second Juneteenth celebration in Iowa City was an event marked by friends, family, games, music, poetry, food, and a message of unity. Though the event was celebrated June 16, Tuesday marks the actual day of observance.

Latasha Massey, the community projects specialist at the Johnson County Social Services and the organizer of the celebration, said that after the first event, organizers wanted to make improvements in hopes of attracting more members of the community.

"[Juneteenth] is a celebration recognized all over the world, because slavery is a global issue and has existed in every country," she said. "Especially with the increase in African Americans living in Iowa City, we thought it was important to organize a cultural celebration that would bring together all age groups, demographics, and cultural backgrounds. Everyone is welcome."

Juneteenth — a portmanteau combining the words June and nineteenth — is a holiday that honors African-American heritage by commemorating the abolition of slavery in Texas in 1865.

Texas, a member of the Confederacy, resisted the Emancipation Proclamation, and it was not until two years after the proclamation that the Union could enforce the abolition of slavery in Texas, on June 19, 1865.

While the historic implications of slavery and inequality were not lost on the crowd, for the younger generation, the event was about playing in the park and having their faces painted.

"It's a great event, and we had a great time here last year, and we enjoy taking the kids out for a day at the park to play with the other kids," said Sebina Davis, an Iowa City resident and mother.

The event was sponsored by many groups, including Club Kazi, Johnson County Social Services, Iowa City Parks and Recreation, the Coalition for Racial Justice, Iowa City Human Rights Committee, and Diversity Focus.

Royceann Porter, a member of the Iowa City Coalition for Racial Justice, said that while organizers had a larger crowd compared with last year's event, the message has remained the same.

"The event is larger, and there are a lot more people than last year, but the messages of unity within the community and remembering the end of slavery are the same," she said.

Paul Suedkamp, an acting lieutenant with the Iowa City Fire Department, kept busy showing off a gleaming fire engine to interested kids. He said the event was an improvement from last year because the department was able to be more involved.

"We not only wanted to take part in a community celebration, we also wanted to interact with the kids," he said. "We're teaching the kids how to use a fire extinguisher in the form of a game."
The Rev. Ray Monden — who made the trip from Cedar Rapids for the occasion — called the celebration an "extension of unity."

"Juneteenth is a day that renders peace and understanding between people of different communities, and it should take place in all cities in America," he said. "One of the main reasons historically one community will have problems with another is because they don't know or understand each other. Community events like this can help build that understanding."

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