Ogden • An African drum beat called for revelers to pause their shopping, partying and eating Saturday at the state’s Juneteenth festival, a celebration of the final abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War — and of freedom in general.
The drum, in keeping with African tradition, meant it was time to gather as a village, remember ancestors, to sing and to pray.
“Dear God, help us to become part of the solution and not the problem,” prayed Charles Petty, the senior pastor at Ogden’s Second Baptist Church. “We thank you to be able to celebrate and appreciate this rich history of African Americans.”
Such prayers and festivals are “a chance to say, ‘I forgive you and you forgive me’” for the lingering scars from slavery and discrimination. “Juneteenth is about forgiveness and healing,” said Betty Sawyer, director of the Utah Juneteenth Freedom & Heritage Festival.
“With this legacy of enslavement in our country," Sawyer added, "you can’t have those kinds of atrocities yielded on you and not have a legacy of resentment and some hate, some confusion.” Juneteenth, she said, helps move beyond that.
In 2016, the Utah Legislature deemed the third Saturday in June as Juneteenth Freedom Day, and 46 other states have similar commemorations. Sawyer said the day is important not only for blacks, but all people because most have ancestors who had ties to slavery or its abolition.
“We are currently experiencing issues around racism, inequality and discrimination,” Sawyer said. “Without coming to terms with the legacy of slavery and all of its byproducts, we spend more time denying than making meaningful progress.”
Forgiveness alone is not enough, she said, and more steps are needed for all races to make progress.
“It’s not enough to just forgive if you still are blocked and can’t get past that” to advance economically, politically and in other ways, she said. “We can help promote equity, fairness and inclusion in telling this whole story about who we are, where we come from and where we want to go. So much of our history has been missed or misinterpreted or miswritten.”
Sawyer said Juneteenth even helps the black community forgive itself.
“Even as a people we have to, at times, forgive ourselves because of the guilt was put upon us to believe that we were less than others, and that we deserved the treatment that we got,” she said.
It helps the black community forgive others, too.
“We need to be able to look at those folk who were part of that legacy of enslavement and Jim Crowism, segregation, discrimination and racism to be able to say, ‘Yes, I do forgive,’ or at least start the process of forgiveness so that we can be able to move forward with more positivity, more passion, more power,” she said.
Demingo Bozeman, in attendance on Saturday, moved to Ogden about a year ago. “I didn’t even know they had a Juneteenth in Utah,” he said while walking among the event’s booths.
Bozeman came with his wife and family, he said, because “I want to get my kids involved in their heritage, and to know their history.”
“It’s way bigger in Colorado,” he said amid small early crowds, noting he also is accustomed to more diversity at such celebrations, including more whites, Latinos and those of other races.
While only 1.7% of Utah’s population is fully or partly black, as defined by U.S. Census Bureau statistics, Ogden’s ratio is more than double that, at 4%.
Sarah Bradley, of Salt Lake City, is white, as are two of her children, but she also has three adopted black children from Ghana. As some of her children laughed Saturday as their faces were painted like African jungle animals, Bradley said she brought them to Juneteenth “because it’s a good opportunity to learn more about culture.”
Bradley said she knew little about the event herself. “But I’m learning,” she said, adding that she hoped it would help bring races together.
Juneteenth began on June 19, 1865 — with the two-word “June 19th” eventually contracted into “Juneteenth.” Slaves in Galveston, Texas, were the last in the nation still enslaved. When Union General Gordon Granger arrived, he called townspeople together that day to read an order freeing the slaves, ending the practice in America.
“The slaves had a huge celebration,” Sawyer said. She added they called it the day of jubilee, a biblical term for a time every 50 years when debts are forgiven and slaves set free. The date still is used to celebrate freedom.
The state’s biggest Juneteenth celebration has been held in Ogden for the past 30 years — moving there initially by accident and then staying.
Celebrations had been held in Salt Lake City’s Jordan Park for many years. But in 1989, volunteers forgot to reserve the park. “And no parks were available there,” Sawyer said.
She called a friend who managed the Marshall White Community Center in Ogden to see if it could be used. “He said, ‘Come on up.’ We sent out word. It went well, and we’ve been in Ogden ever since.”
The Ogden celebration continues on Sunday from noon to 9 p.m. with a special Father’s Day tribute at the Ogden Amphitheater, 343 E. 25th St.
That tribute will include a gospel music celebration with national recording artists Vanessa Bell Armstrong and Zenobia Smith. The evening will highlight local jazz legend Joe McQueen, with the 100-year-old musician performing at 7 p.m.
Celebrations move to Salt Lake City on Wednesday, the actual Juneteenth anniversary. A celebration is scheduled from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Gallivan Center, 239 S. Main St. The family-friendly event will feature food, games and entertainment.