Realizing the past and reimagining the future

30 years of celebrating Juneteenth in Springfield

The nonprofit Juneteenth, Inc. was established four years ago by Springfield natives Shymeka Kerr-Gregory and Cherena Douglass to focus on preserving and continuing Springfield's Juneteenth celebration legacy.

"Juneteenth is the true Independence Day for all of us, and eradicating racism through education comes in many forms: arts and culture, history and sociology, music and entertainment and, of course, technology," said co-director Douglass.

click to enlarge Realizing the past and reimagining the future
Zach Adams
Shymeka Kerr-Gregory, left, and Cherena Douglass (not pictured) serve as co-directors for Juneteenth, Inc., a nonprofit established four years ago to focus on preserving and continuing Springfield’s Juneteenth celebration legacy. Tyshianna Bankhead, right, is the organization's media coordinator.

Kerr-Gregory and Douglass assumed the duties and responsibilities of organizing the city's Juneteenth celebration in 2020 with the formation of Juneteenth, Inc. "This year's main goal and vision for Juneteenth, Inc. is to establish this 30th year, keep the Juneteenth celebration going and emphasize the education component," said Douglass.

Kerr-Gregory and Douglass both acknowledge a group of community organizers who first conceived of the idea and offered the first Juneteenth celebration in 1994. The following year, it was organized by Mike Williams and One in a Million, Inc., who kept it going until 2019.

In 2020, the newly formed Juneteenth, Inc. made its mission to organize, partner and produce a commemorative celebration which seeks to expand the previous efforts to include the objective of eliminating racism. To accomplish this, Juneteenth, Inc. calls on the community as a whole and civic leaders to recognize the past, realize our future and reimagine the present.

While oral history and grassroots networking is great, the directors believe it's now time to solidify this history and be bold and brazen in expressing it. They started the NOIR art exhibition to recognize Black artists, which is in its fourth year, the Mr. and Miss Juneteenth pageant, an educational component and youth development. The co-directors also curated a Juneteenth timeline that was first featured in the Illinois State Museum and is now displayed in all Springfield museums.

2024's Juneteenth will be commemorated over the course of an entire week with free events daily (see the daily schedule of events on p. 18). Comer Cox Park will again be the site for the two-day weekend celebration. This year's main stage will be headlined by world-renowned musician, singer-songwriter and Springfield-born Morris Day, lead singer of The Time.

New for 2024 is the Freeish lunch and learn panel on Black citizenship at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and the Mr. and Miss Juneteenth Pageant in the Southeast High School auditorium, both on June 14, as well as a stop the violence panel discussion taking place at One in a Million on June 17 and the Youth Enrichment Camp at the Route History museum on June 18.

The directors expressed the desire to continue to expand their partnerships, educational components and youth development. They also want to acknowledge and support the current Mr. Juneteenth as he will be utilizing his talent in running a football camp during the Juneteenth celebration and Miss Juneteenth as she competes as a contestant in the Miss Sangamon County pageant.

"Many people have no clue of Juneteenth's importance and significance to all of us," Douglass said of the now federally recognized holiday. "People have commented that it is a made-up holiday. Truth is, all holidays are made up. They are a collective of the society saying this is important to us and the culture."

She noted that Juneteenth is important because it commemorates the true independence of all American citizens.

"Springfield has shown its significance for 30 years, making it the longest-running festival in Springfield," said Douglass. "Partnering with communities that don't look like us is also key. Everyone is welcome. Whether they come for the parade, the party in the park or an educational event, Juneteeth is everyone's history."

Douglass continued, "In celebrating this day, we are saying that we acknowledge Black plight, systemic racism, detriment from chattel slavery and so much more we never learned in history class, such as not all Black people became free. But were all 'freed' people really free?"

While Illinois was admitted to the Union as a free state in 1818, restrictive state laws continued to deny Black citizens fundamental freedoms.

"Let's be real, even Illinois wasn't truly a free state," said Douglass. "There were (Illinois) Black Laws that said we couldn't even move without freedom papers. People need to know these things. This is a time for more than a party. It's a time for education, reflection and understanding. And hopefully a time of some sort of resolution."

Dr. Pamela Woodson of Springfield is an entrepreneur, author, freelance writer and former professor at Lincoln Land Community College and Benedictine University at Springfield. She is the owner and lead consultant of Pamela Speaks Training & Consulting.

Pamela Woodson

Dr. Pamela Woodson of Springfield is an entrepreneur, author, freelance writer and former professor at Lincoln Land Community College and Benedictine University at Springfield. She is the owner and lead consultant of Pamela Speaks Training & Consulting.

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