The second annual Juneteenth Family Day Celebration in Wesley Chapel’s Union Park community brought on added significance.
Just days prior to the weekend event, the U.S. Senate passed legislation declaring June 19 a federal holiday, and then President Joe Biden signed it into law.
The groundbreaking development brought extra spark to all involved, event organizer Melissa Akers-Atkins acknowledged.
“We were very excited,” Akers-Atkins recently told The Laker/Lutz News. “It happened Thursday, so we were excited that Saturday we were able to announce that and celebrate it again, even more. It was just a little different you know.”
The event was held to commemorate the day – June 19, 1865 – when the last enslaved Blacks, in Galveston, Texas, learned that the Emancipation Proclamation had freed them. Juneteenth is also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day.
The June 19 celebration at Union Park was coordinated by a handful of neighborhood residents, led by Akers-Atkins. Other members of the planning committee included Tamika Diaz, Alexandra Archibald, Mesha Pierre, Talana Brown, Antoine Williams and Michaela Steward.
Songs, dance, music, food, prayer, prizes and fellowship filled a day of activities from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., at the Union Park clubhouse on Bering Road.
The festival drew over 100 attendees and also had several Black-owned vendors and other organizations on hand. This included multiple young entrepreneurs like 14-year-old Jordan Parramore, the owner/operator of Jordan’s Juice Bar, selling juice pops and coco bombs.
The event began with an opening prayer from Carmel Friendship Church pastor Quincy Stratford, then a discussion on the meaning of Juneteenth led by co-organizer Tamika Diaz.
Neil Archibald, a Wesley Chapel-based attorney, delivered a reflection speech called “Affirmations to Live By,” about what it’s like to be an African American male in society today. He also encouraged young people to pursue their dreams and never give up on lifelong goals.
Multiple poems were presented throughout the event, too.
Aiyana Gabrielle Williams, 15, delivered “Never Give In” by Greg Thung. Deidre Kelsey-Holley read an original poem, titled “Chosen.”
The family friendly event also included all sorts of activities for kids, including volleyball, football, Connect 4, Jenga, corn hole, checkers, hula hoop and bounce house.
The recent deaths of Black individuals by police officers, including George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement and street protests brought greater attention to Juneteenth celebrations over the past couple years.
The background and history of Juneteenth is enlightening.
President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, freeing slaves living in the Confederate states.
But, the news in those days traveled slowly, or in some instances, wasn’t acknowledged by slave owners.
On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers came ashore at Galveston, Texas, and announced the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery. The date was 2 ½ years after Lincoln’s proclamation.
A few months later, on Dec. 6, 1865, the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery everywhere. The following year, Juneteenth celebrations, often hosted by African American churches, took root.
Raising awareness of the importance of Juneteenth was among Union Park event organizers goals.
But, they also want to foster unity, a sense of safety, and civic participation through voting.
Uplifting and providing outreach to area youth likewise was imperative during the Juneteenth celebration, Akers-Atkins said.
Several kids were incorporated into the celebration, including a step dance performance from Wesley Chapel teenagers Faraasha Bell Fonoto and NaVeah Akers-Atkins.
Derived from African and slave dances, stepping is energetic and expressive, and requires the shoes on the pavement to be the percussion aspects of the dance.
Meanwhile, the celebration’s youngest performer was five-year-old Joilene Jones, who delivered a gymnastics routine for all to see.
“I think as the youth see the community within which they live care about their education, whether they’re in school or out of school, we care enough about them, and we’d like to still encourage them in that and let them see that you don’t just have to learn what they teach you in school,” Akers-Atkins explained.
“Your neighbors, your community, the people around you, we’re all here to help build you up and mold you into this well-rounded individual, seeing and doing and modeling for them, and also including them in these activities and including them in the planning, so I think it’s very important that we do that, and that we continue to push them.
“We hope there’s more kids next year that aren’t afraid to step out of their comfort zone and they’re able to share their artistic talents with their community,” Akers-Atkins said.
Melissa and fellow organizers plan to host a Juneteenth celebration each year at Union Park, with grander visions to someday collaborate on a countywide event incorporating several other neighboring communities — a get-together that could be held at Wesley Chapel District Park.
Meanwhile, they also plan to host other cultural events through the year at Union Park, including celebrations for Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15.
Published June 30, 2021