Utahns participate in Juneteenth events, feel federal designation a ‘step in the right direction’

Residents of Salt Lake City and Ogden hope for progress after federal holiday.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nailah Mansa, volunteer coordinator for the Juneteenth Planning Commission joins Betty Sawyer, Director of Project Success Coalition Ogden as they take a brief break to catch their breath during the 32nd Annual Utah Juneteenth Festival and Holiday Commemoration at the Ogden Amphitheater on Saturday, June 19, 2021. Sawyer exclaimed “this has been a twenty year journey for me to pass this nationally, and it feels great.”

Chants of “Black Lives Matter” followed by “every single day,” — along with music by artists like SZA and Lizzo — echoed through Washington Square Park on Saturday as attendees of Juneteenth Utah’s “Summer of Love” event marched through the streets in 100-degree heat, two days after President Joe Biden declared Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

Meanwhile, at the Ogden Amphitheater, hundreds of people gathered in spite of the high temperatures to sample fried fish and shrimp, shop at clothing booths and enjoy musical performances from local and regional artists. Shakira Smith, a dancer with Ngoma Y’Africa Cultural Center, led children through an African dance routine on stage as parents cheered and videotaped from the amphitheater’s seats.

On June 19, 156 years ago, federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to ensure the liberation of all enslaved people — two years after the emancipation proclamation had been signed, and two months after the surrender of the confederacy.

This Saturday’s Juneteenth marks the first time the day is a federal holiday, but members of Utah’s Black community have organized events to commemorate that anniversary in Ogden for over three decades, and for even longer in Salt Lake City.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune). Participants chant "Black lives matter, every single day" as they march down 500 South in Salt Lake City, during the Juneteenth celebration, on Saturday, June 19, 2021.

“We’re here for a really horrible reason; it’s not a celebration,” said organizer Natasha Cadet at the beginning of the Salt Lake City event. “This event is to showcase and support and empower and unify Black communities, the Black and brown communities, BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] … We can all trace back, we are all distant relatives, it’s all love. This is the summer of love.”

[Related: Upcoming Juneteenth Events]

‘It’s kind of bittersweet’

People at Saturday’s events said they are glad to see the holiday recognized, but many said it took too long and isn’t enough.

“I’m glad people are starting to understand that we are just like everybody else and they want to help celebrate us … and what Juneteenth really means,” said Ogden Juneteenth attendee Kylie Jackson, who helped organize a Black Lives Matter protest in Logan last year.

Niecie Jones, an attendee at Ogden’s event, said she thinks it is great that Juneteenth is a federal holiday, but she also thinks its creation feels performative because there is so much other work that needs to be done. She said she wants to see things like economic reparations, conversations about police reform and laws that will support Black lives in a more meaningful way than having a day off.

Aniya Howling, also an Ogden attendee, said she is thankful to see the holiday recognized, but said it should have happened a long time ago.

“I didn’t know it was not a federal holiday until [recently],” said Mehkai Jones, a Layton rapper who performed at the Salt Lake City event. “It was a great thing. … But it’s kind of bittersweet. I was like, ‘Awesome.’ And then I was like, ‘Barely?’ But it’s a step in the right direction.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dorian Ransom twirls his niece Imani Shelley, 2, as they join the festivities for the 32nd Annual Utah Juneteenth Festival and Holiday Commemoration at the Ogden Amphitheater on Saturday, June 19, 2021.

‘Keep it going’

Ria Agarwal and Chloe Coleman-Houghton both attended last year’s Juneteenth event in Salt Lake City and also attended protests of racial injustice last year. The two wanted to continue supporting the effort in the city this year, while also checking out some local BIPOC vendors present at the event.

Agarwal said that she feels there have been some steps in the right direction, especially with policy changes in Minnesota regarding police brutality, but that people should not lose sight of the “bigger system of violence against Black Americans.”

“We [both] felt like we should keep it going,” Coleman-Houghton said. “Although a lot of the protests aren’t going as much as they were last year, I think it’s so important to bring that message across and show your support for communities that need it.”

Some Saturday attendees said they came out in part to learn more about Juneteenth.

Siblings Crystal and Javier Martinez, who are not Black, said they attended Ogden’s event to learn more about the day. Shay Pace, who is white, went to support her boyfriend, who was performing at the event. She said there were a lot of things to learn and see at the festival.

“More people should attend it,” she said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A young girl dances and jumps as Ogden celebrates their 32nd Annual Utah Juneteenth Festival and Holiday Commemoration at the Ogden Amphitheater on Saturday, June 19, 2021.

‘A time to come together and support one another’

During the Salt Lake City march, leaders chanted “Say her name” and “Say his name,” while attendees responded by calling out “Breonna Taylor” and “George Floyd.”

Marchers gathered together in the sweltering heat around Washington Square Park, with organizers handing out water and periodically spraying participants with squirt guns to cool off. Some danced along to SZA’s “Good Days” or Beyoncé's “Crazy in Love” as they marched for hours.

Dawn Kearney, who sang at the Salt Lake City event, said the holiday is especially important for Black people given the current racial climate and the state of Utah.

“This is the day to celebrate history and the actual freedom of our people,” Kearney said. “I feel this is when we should actually be celebrating things. We’ve seen a lot of times America whitewashes things. A lot of times we see Black people specifically take the backseat on a lot of historical events, and I think that this is a time to celebrate, and a time to educate, and a time to come together and support one another.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Natasha Cadet leads the crowd in a Black Lives matter chant, as they march down 300 South in Salt Lake City, during the Juneteenth celebration, on Saturday, June 19, 2021.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Noelle Jenkins chants with the crowd as they march down 500 South in Salt Lake City, during the Juneteenth celebration, on Saturday, June 19, 2021.

The next step, Jones believes, is to “transition from Black Lives Matter being a hashtag or a political stance,” to it being “literally just a statement over life and just the value of people.”

Although issues of racial inequality have come up for many people only in the last few years, Kearney said, Black people have been dealing with that reality forever, so she also hopes there can be progress beyond superficial acts.

“Painting a street ‘Black Lives Matter’ doesn’t actually help Black lives,” Kearney said. “Police reform or police defunding, stuff like that, and education and policymaking, that’s what actually helps the Black community. … That’s what I really want to see change.”

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