Friday’s rain didn’t dampen the celebratory atmosphere during the kickoff of Syracuse’s 35th annual Juneteenth Festival. Amid the light sprinkling, guests at Syracuse City Hall were met with the vibrant percussionary drums of Blessings in Motion, and the festival was off to a jubilant start.
Juneteenth commemorates the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. Leading up to the official holiday recognized on June 19, Syracuse’s Juneteenth Festival board organized a host of family-friendly activities and community events.
Even before the holiday’s federal recognition in 2021, Juneteenth celebrations have long been a Syracuse staple. Syracuse’s African American community has celebrated the event annually for more than three decades, holding its first Juneteenth festival in 1988.
“We are coming out together in the spirit of Juneteenth, just as they did after 1865, when they found out they were emancipated — the last of the slaves in Texas,” Syracuse Juneteenth board member Bridget McCarthy said. “And they came back together again the following year to celebrate entrepreneurship, to celebrate community, to celebrate unity, to celebrate just being together as a family. And, not just by blood, but because we are all of the African diaspora.”
The entire weekend was filled with celebration.
After Blessings in Motion kickstarted the event, Bishop H. Bernard Alex led the crowd in a united rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and poet Simone Owens performed spoken-word.
The ceremony was moderated by radio personality Roosevelt “Rick” Wright, who introduced a host of local community leaders and county officials, including Mayor Ben Walsh; Esteban Gonzalez, director of strategic initiatives for Onondaga County; and Syracuse Juneteenth board members Kevin Henry and McCarthy.
Walsh and Gonzalez delivered the City of Syracuse Juneteenth Festival proclamation. The Mayor acknowledged other public servants, including Syracuse Common Council President Helen Hudson, Onondaga County legislator Linda R. Ervin, Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens and Syracuse City Fire Chief Michael J. Monds.
“It is an honor and a privilege to serve with all of these leaders,” Walsh said.
The festival celebrations continued Saturday with the victory parade, led by this year’s grand marshal, Adrian Autry, the Syracuse University men’s basketball coach.
The parade started at the Dunbar Center en route to its final destination, Clinton Square, where guests were met with an array of activities. There were live performances by local youth dance troupes, musical acts and bouncy houses for children. An assortment of vendors sold food, clothing, art and jewelry, and nonprofit organizations and voter registration booths were distributed throughout the square.
“The most exciting thing for me is for us to come together and have not only our Black folks, but all different races and folks coming downtown, so that we can showcase how we do things in terms of our eating, our dance, and the way we party,” said Kevin Henry Sr., owner of Henry’s Hen House and director of operations for the city of Syracuse. “I look forward to seeing that.”
Henry’s catering company served a long line of patrons , with Henry maneuvering seamlessly to take orders, prepare food and meticulously work with his two sons cooking on the outdoor grills.
The restaurant’s menu included a culinary fusion of authentic Southern American and Caribbean cuisine. These dishes included jerk chicken, steamed cabbage and curry chicken over white rice (the Caribbean cuisine) and fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and red beans and rice (the Southern-style cuisine).
“Not to take anything away from the Fourth of July, but this truly is our independence day,” Henry said.
Elisabeth Osei-Kwame, volunteer administrator at United Way of Central New York and member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc, a prominent African-American sorority, was there to bask in the celebration of the festival and to participate in the parade with her sorority sisters.
“I just love being here in the community, I love this space, seeing the camaraderie, the happiness, the joy, because a lot of times Syracuse doesn’t feel that way, or people are nervous to come out with everything else that happens,” Kwame said. “It’s nice to be able to find spaces like this and cultivate it and just be there and be present, and let your face be seen. That’s how you build community.”
Kwame, a first-generation American of Ghanaian descent, recognizes the struggle of African Americans in their quest to improve relations and fight for freedom for all, she said.
In terms of misconceptions about Juneteenth for non-Black people, Kwame encourages everyone to learn, ask questions and engage in community when uncertain.
“For me, Juneteenth is about honoring the legacy of our ancestors and how much they had to go through,” she said.
The festival also gave many local business owners an opportunity to get more exposure to their businesses.
Ronald Robinson, the owner of Artistic boutique, a women’s clothing boutique since 2015, displayed his boutique’s collection at the festival for the first time this year.
“It gives me an opportunity to expand my horizon and meet some new customers at this celebration, while also remembering the historic significance of the day,” Robinson said. “I think it’s a good opportunity for the country, the city, the world, to really look at the significance of this day, the historical precedence of what we’re celebrating here and the accomplishments of how far we’ve come as a people and how far we hope to go.”
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