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Iowa City celebrates end of slavery

BY ALISON CASSITY | JUNE 29, 2015 5:00 AM

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On June 27, the parking lot at the Robert A. Lee Rec Center was packed with families, free food, face painting, and more to mark 150 years of Juneteenth.

Juneteenth is a celebration of the end of slavery in America, and its roots in history go deep, said Leslie Schwalm, a University of Iowa history professor specializing in slavery, the Civil War, & Reconstruction.

“It actually celebrates the day in 1865 when a Union officer brought news of emancipation to Galveston, Texas,” she said.

The celebration, the fifth-annual one in Iowa City, featured booths with games, face painting, and free food. Organizer LaTasha DeLoach kicked off the celebration from the main stage with a speech.

“You celebrate victories that were hard, painful, in which people lost their lives,” she said. “We want to teach our children. We are so grateful that we’ve made it to this day.”

The biggest goal of the celebration was to draw people together, DeLoach said.

“I appreciate people coming out to recognize that it’s important, and we should come together,” she said. “With what’s going on in this country, a lot of that echoes from this past.”

The food and games were a draw for families, but many who attended the celebration expressed a bigger reason for going.

“I personally am from Africa, but growing up here has made me appreciate what African Americans have done and how far we’ve come, even though we still have a long way to go,” Iowa City resident Wisdom Nwafor said.

The meaningful nature of the day was not lost on those who attended, and the festivities kicked off with the reading of Juneteenth proclamations and a moment of silence for the nine victims of the Charleston shooting.

“This symbolizes the time when my people, African-American people, were set free, but also another time when we were getting a little closer to equality in America,” said Chastity Dillard, the development director for the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County.

Historically, Juneteenth has been a way to acknowledge the past and celebrate victories, Schwalm said.

“Juneteenth is a way to celebrate the end of slavery while also insisting that slavery is a part of our national history,” she said. “The tenor of the celebration would change as the generations of those who had experienced slavery passed on. It became a way to commemorate the past.”

Families from all over Johnson County came together for the celebration, which hosted around 500 people over the course of the day, DeLoach said.

For DeLoach, who has organized nearly all of the five Johnson County celebrations, the celebration of Juneteenth hits close to home.

“On my dad’s side, my great-grandfather was a freed man, and he purchased my great-grandmother out of slavery,” she said. “[On Juneteenth] one of my relatives was recognized as a human and not as property, so it’s huge.”

She said misinformation is the biggest hurdle facing Juneteenth. More people should educate themselves about the history of Juneteenth and celebrate the holiday in the future, she said.

“Three million people became human,” she said. “That’s powerful. I’m going to celebrate that.”


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