Despite the humid heat on Saturday, the June 19 festivities on West Ninth Street saw the highest turnout Key Fletcher has ever seen, she said.
Fletcher is the director of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, which has coordinated numerous Saturday events in Little Rock as part of Juneteenth in Da Rock, honoring the holiday that African Americans have celebrated for decades, even though it has not been declared a federal holiday. until 2021.
June 19 marks the date—June 19, 1865—when Union soldiers landed in Galveston, Texas with the news that the Civil War was over and that state’s slaves were officially free.
The holiday is always a celebration of freedom, said Erica O’Neal, a Little Rock businesswoman who sold jewelry and handbags on the corner of Ninth and Gaines streets.
“The freedom to celebrate who you are, the freedom to celebrate your struggles, the freedom to celebrate your achievements and accomplishments,” O’Neal said. “It’s the freedom to be you. It really makes me feel good to see so many people celebrating here.”
West Ninth Street was the hub of a thriving Little Rock Black business district for much of the 20th century, so the three blocks between Broadway and State Street hosted a wide array of food, d art, clothing and other Saturday vendors. Fletcher said 130 vendors attended in partnership with the Mosaic Templars and the Building Black Communities fund provided 40 free vendor booths to grant recipients.
Supporting black artists and entrepreneurs is a big priority for the Mosaic Templars, Fletcher said.
Brandi Washington came from Hot Springs to set up a booth for her clothing store, The Skirt Shop 101. She said she appreciated the opportunity to network, as well as the chance to “celebrate freedom in a safe environment with similar minds”.
Mosaic Templars held Juneteenth in Da Rock for 13 years, but recent years have amplified the need to recognize black history, Fletcher said.
“People are looking for a way to recognize the importance and accomplishments of African Americans,” she said. “I think over the last few years we’ve started to see almost a settling of scores in our communities [about] the importance of African-American history.”
In addition to the street market, Juneteenth in Da Rock included a 5k run through some of Little Rock’s most historic black neighborhoods, live music and dancing throughout the day on the main stage set up on Arch Street, interactive exhibits in the Hall for children to learn about the history of Juneteenth, and a screening of the Arkansas PBS documentary “Dreamland: Little Rock’s West 9th Street” at the Ron Robinson Theater on River Market Avenue.
Juneteenth in Da Rock was a largely virtual event in 2020 and 2021 due to the covid-19 pandemic, Fletcher said, and the surge in attendance this year could have been the result.
The recognition of June 19 as a federal holiday last year may also have fueled the celebrations this year, she said.
“We never needed anyone to tell us our story matters, but we need legislation so people don’t forget,” she said.
DeMonica McClurge’s teenage daughter thought Juneteenth was a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr., so McClurge decided they should head to Little Rock from Sherwood on Saturday as both a fun and educational outing, she said declared.
McClurge had never celebrated the holiday before, and she said it was “like celebrating the 4th of July from here until the 4th of July.”
“It’s a celebration of my ancestors, who they were and where we come from,” she said.
Little Rock saw other festivities on Saturday apart from Juneteenth at Da Rock. Arkansas’ Martin Luther King Jr. Commission held a rally on the steps of the state Capitol on Saturday morning, with a Broadway keynote address from Joe Booker of radio station KIPR-FM, 92.3, “Power 92” .
Just before Booker began his speech, police ordered attendees to evacuate the Capitol building due to an apparent bomb threat. The event resumed minutes later at the intersection of Capitol Avenue and Woodlane Street.
Little Rock police received multiple calls reporting threats in different parts of the city Saturday, department spokesman Sgt. Eric Barnes said, but officers checked every scene and found no explosives or other threats. Additionally, none of the reports indicated that the threat was directly related to a June 19 celebration.
Police have traced numerous calls to a North Little Rock woman who suffers from mental health issues and who previously made false reports to police, Barnes said. North Little Rock police have been alerted to the false reports and are considering providing mental health care to the woman through a social worker, he said.
When Booker was able to begin his speech, he recounted the difficulties of obtaining information about the end of slavery in Galveston, Texas, since some Confederate soldiers refused to surrender after the Civil War ended.
“As African Americans, I don’t think many of us consider the 4th of July our day of freedom,” he said.
The Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission is a division of the Arkansas Department of Education dedicated to promoting the legacy of the civil rights icon.
The commission appreciates the involvement of young people in its cause and in Saturday’s event, which included song and dance, said commission executive director DuShun Scarbrough.
“It’s important to teach them why we celebrate June 19, instead of just celebrating it,” he said. “I find it important to empower young people to be agents of change.”
Doris McPhee Jackson brought her two teenage nieces to the Capitol for their first June 19 celebration to teach them the meaning of the holiday, she said.
She’s lived in Little Rock since 1983 and has seen local June 19 celebrations grow over time, she said.
“Anyone can participate in Juneteenth,” McPhee Jackson said. “Everyone has a part of the story in Juneteenth and that’s how I see it. As we do it year after year, it gets bigger and we bring together more diverse communities.”
Information for this report was provided by Grant Lancaster of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.