OBERLIN — This year, Oberlin’s Juneteenth celebration was for the children.
Juneteenth celebrations mark when the last slave was freed June 19, 1865, in Texas — more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Saturday’s festival is Oberlin’s capstone to a weekend of events, with a Maafa Memorial Service and community picnic Friday evening and a parade early Saturday.
New chairperson and organizer Valerie Lawson said the annual festival usually has a lot of younger attendees, but she wanted this year to be a history lesson for the county’s youth. The theme was “children are our blessing.”
“I want them to go to Maafa, I think they need to see that, where their heritage is from,” she said. “That’s what I want them to obtain — but if they obtain a shirt and a rib sandwich, I’m OK with that too.”
She said she tried to get area schools to have students research Juneteenth and write essays on it, but had no success. She plans to push the program more next year.
Lawson said for her first year putting it together, the event turned out better than she thought. She took over from Adenike Sharpley, who retired from Oberlin College in 2017. Sharpley still will organize the annual Maafa Memorial Service, but is taking a backseat for the rest of the Juneteenth events.
“(Sharpley) looked at me and she said ‘You know it’s a lot of work?’” Lawson said. “I said I’ll do it, and here I am. So I’ll be doing it from here on out.”
With this year’s focus on children, Lawson invited several youth dance groups to perform, including Lorain-based African Royalty and The Barbies of Steel City.
African Royalty, coached by Donna Gilchrest, started out as regular dance group in the 1990s before transitioning to traditional African dance in 2005. The group accepts anyone 5 and older, teaching them the culture and history of the continent their ancestors were taken from.
“It’s just a history of our heritage, and we show it through our dancing,” Gilchrist said.
On Saturday the group performed two dances, a traditional Kuku dance from Guinea in West Africa and a modernized dance to Sounds of Blackness’ “The Drum.” The first song tells the story of women coming back from fishing, while the modern song is the story of African Americans’ ancestors coming to America from Africa.
The Barbies of Steel City, owned by Jonquil Currie, of Columbus, is a competitive majorette group with girls as young as kindergarten participating. While their routines normally include some gymnastics, performing on Tappan Square’s cobblestone path prohibited them some.
Currie drives up to her hometown of Lorain to coach the troupe every weekend. Founded in 2016, this is the first year the group has performed at Juneteenth, and plan to come back next year.
“We love performing for the community, that’s our way of giving back,” Currie said. “So it was definitely a great experience,”
Amidst the different performances and bustle of the festival, Lawson took a moment to recognize Linda Isabell, who has helped organize the annual event for roughly 20 years. After some health issues, Isabell has had to step away from her former role but her longstanding input was not forgotten.
“This is a holiday here,” Lawson said. “This is what we do on Juneteenth, and we plan the whole thing and it’s just wonderful.”
Despite a last minute change in venue, the city’s seventh annual Juneteenth Blues Festival went off without a hitch.
Normally held outside at Lakeview Park and visible from Erie Avenue, rain forced organizers to move the event in the park’s event center for the safety of attendees, performers and musical instruments.
“Actually, we get rain every single year,” co-organizer Kaleena Whitfield laughed. “Either the night before, the morning of, right after — so we’re used to the rain, we just decided to make the adjustment early and move everything inside because of the radar … which is kind of the nice thing about being here because we can adjust and make different accommodations.”
Whitfield, outreach manager at Lorain County Metro Parks said this year saw an increase in the vendors at the event, giving attendees the chance to support local businesses alongside the different information tables crowding the sides of the event center. From T-shirts and dashikis to jewelry and cookies, Whitfield said Tamika Newsome from Jump at the Sun Daycare helped gather small businesses for the evening’s celebration.
“Everyone seems to be pleased with the switch, they’re excited to kind of be inside and still get to come out and do something,” she said. “Sometimes the weather just impedes upon our fun and we just decided to not let it stop us today … We probably will have a different turnout but still people are coming out to support.”
Jeanine Donaldson, YWCA of Elyria and Lorain executive director, also helps organize the annual event. While she would have preferred it been held outdoors so passersby could stop, she said Saturday’s turnout was still good.
“I lived here for 40 years now and I’ve seen all kinds of events in this park and never saw anything that was representative of the African-American culture and I think living in the community that we call the International City and we have so many festivals — Greek, Irish, whatever — but we didn’t have a festival,” she said. “So that’s what the intent was when we started this and I think we have more than grown in that capacity.”
This year’s event was kicked off by a lone drummer, Donaldson noted.
“It’s a good kickoff because drums came from Africa,” she said. “Drums were banned on plantations because they could be heard from one plantation to the next and so it was a form of communication by the slaves. And so we thought, what a better place and a better way to call us together with the drums.”
Marcel Emanuel, 15, a freshman at Open Door Christian School and part of Great Expectations Music Ministries at New Creation Baptist Church in Lorain, played a set of tenor drums and said the experience was nerve-wracking, despite his love of solos.
“I heard no one else was coming and I was like ‘Oh, OK, so it’s all up to me,’” he said. “I had to do a cadence all by myself and I had to add a bit of something else to seem a bit more original.”
A multitalented musician, Marcel’s mother Mechelle Cave said she was proud he got up there and played with confidence.
“I’m always in awe when I see him perform. I’m always amazed,” Cave said. “I’m a single mom, so to see him do things and do great things, it just keeps me going because it can be tough being a single mom … it used to bring tears to my eyes, but I think because I’m used to it because he’s really good after so long you’re just like ‘yeah, that’s my baby.’”
Both Donaldson and Whitfield called the event a “homecoming,” amid the education and music.
“So for me, I haven’t seen our Abraham Lincoln (John Cooper) in a year,” Whitfield said, “so I get to see people and I think that’s how everyone else is feeling too. People that they don’t normally see, and this is the event that they do see them at, it’s kind of exciting.”
Donaldson added, “The word’s getting out and people are doing what we’re supposed to, to celebrate. Because the other thing too, is that like for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we take that so seriously, but this is a holiday that we can celebrate — it’s like a reunion, a family reunion.”