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The city named for Abe Lincoln rejects funding for Juneteenth and Pride celebrations

A central Illinois city named for President Abraham Lincoln is not so keen on a celebration that marks Lincoln's landmark achievement — ending slavery in the U.S.

Juneteeth is one of two celebrations planned in Lincoln that got a cool reception when organizers asked for money.

Lincoln hosted its first Juneteenth celebration in 2020, when the murder of George Floyd was fresh in everyone's mind.

Organizers relied on donations to cover costs in the first two years, but after several mainstay events in Lincoln got more money from the city through the American Rescue Plan Act, Juneteenth organizers asked for financial help from the city too.

“This is about making an inclusive environment in a historically red community where there is a lot of discrimination."
Kelsi Edwards, Logan County Pride

Jennifer Hunt is with the Hunt For Foundation, the group that runs Lincoln's Juneteenth. She said the city told the group they weren't eligible for ARPA funds, because the Juneteenth event did not precede the COVID pandemic, so they were out of luck. Hunt said the group then asked for funding through the city's hotel motel tax. The city uses that money to pay for tourism.

Hunt said several city council members questioned why the planners don't charge admission. “It’s more beneficial for us to market free and get more people out there, to educate and to unite and celebrate than for us to charge an underserved community,” Hunt explained.

Kelsi Edwards
Kelsi Edwards

Another underserved community in Lincoln requested financial help too. Kelsi Edwards is with Logan County Pride, a group that put on Lincoln's first Pride festival for LGBTQ awareness last year. It's planning its second annual event this year. Edwards said Logan County Pride wanted to do a bigger celebration than the mostly private event it held last year.

“There was a lot of concern last year about safety. It came a time when there was a lot of hatred going around this country, and so a lot of planning members were scared to make it overly public and big and have problems brought it,” Edwards said.

Lincoln city council member Sam Downs proposed during a meeting in April the city give Juneteenth $2,500, a small fraction of what it had asked for, and give Logan County Pride $1,500. The motion died. No other council member offered a second.

Downs said he was shocked.

“I had no idea that it would have died right there. I was really disappointed to say the least,” he said.

The issue came up at another city council meeting, a non-voting meeting, in late April. Council members became more vocal. Wanda Rolphs explained why she let the funding requests die without a vote.

“There are a lot of taxpayers that are very passionate about this issue also that don’t want us to vote for it and really have been complimentary on that fact that it didn’t pass,” Rolphs said.

Sam Downs posing next to U.S. flag
Sam Downs

Mayor Tracy Welch seemed to question whether this opposition to the Juneteeth and Pride events really exists.

“Where are all of the individuals that are calling all of you (council members)? The only people I see come into the council chambers are the people that alderman Downs is talking about. That’s passion, showing up for a meeting," Welch said.

Another council member suggested the city supported Juneteenth last year because it allowed the group to hold a parade and a city police officer provided traffic control.

Mayor Welch said the city could have provided funded through its new diversity and inclusion commission. Rolphs responded the city has little information about the Hunt for Foundation, the group that runs Juneteenth. She asked where that money would come from. The Hunt for Foundation is in the process of applying for nonprofit status. Welch responded he had already explained the commission's purpose to the council.

“Quite honestly, diversity and inclusion wasn’t that big of a deal until they came asking for money,” Welch said.

Lincoln is predominantly white. According to the census, only 3% of Lincoln residents identify as African American. The town's predominantly Black college recently closed because of financial trouble. And Lincoln's politics are predominantly red. Donald Trump beat Joe Biden in Logan County by 40 points in the 2020 presidential election.

Kelsi Edwards with Logan County Pride said she believes Republican party politics are driving this opposition against Pride and Juneteenth celebrations. “This is about making an inclusive environment in a historically red community where there is a lot of discrimination,” Edwards said.

Jennifer Hunt with Juneteenth said there are many inclusive people in Lincoln, but the city council doesn't reflect that and she said they showed that with their refusal to vote. “It’s disappointing, extremely disappointing. It’s not unexpected. As I stated to (the council), the city has a history of racial biasness and discriminatory behavior,” Hunt said.

Hunt said the council actions have created a negative perception about Lincoln. She said a vendor they invited from Peoria declined because they felt they wouldn't feel welcome.

Lincoln city council member Sam Downs said he believes his city is welcoming, but given the council's inaction to help Juneteenth and Pride, it sure doesn't look that way.

“This is not going to stop us. It would have been beneficial, it would have been helpful, but it will not stop us."
Jennifer Hunt, Lincoln Juneteeth

“I want people to feel welcome. I want people to feel loved and appreciated,” Downs said. “(The city council’s action) doesn’t represent the heart of Lincoln.”

Downs said he was prepared to come back and propose less money for both Juneteenth and Pride, just something to show the city supported their causes.

“The money was more a symbolic gesture of support and appreciation than it was for funding,” Downs said.

Organizers of both events agree any city funding would feel like acceptance.

Several council members suggested the groups ask the Logan County Tourism office for money. That office gets a portion of Lincoln's hotel-motel tax money and Juneteenth did get 500 tourism dollars. Logan County Pride did not get a request submitted in time.

Jennifer Hunt with Juneteenth said their event will happen, even without a dollar from the city of Lincoln.

“This is not going to stop us. It would have been beneficial, it would have been helpful, but it will not stop us,” Hunt said, adding the group is relying on private donations and is close to covering costs.

Kelsi Edwards with Logan County Pride said she's also disappointed Lincoln chose not to offer support for her group's event but she feels closer to reaching understanding.

“I have a big heart and I want to cure a broken world and I know I can’t change everyone, but this is just a small step in opening that door. I know that’s a big motivator for Juneteenth too, opening conversations about Black lives and what it means and those kinds of things,” Edwards said.

Lincoln Mayor Tracy Welch said the city's diversity and inclusion commission was meant to support all sorts of causes, not only for African-American and LGBTQ populations, but also veterans, people with disabilities and others who are disadvantaged. He said the city has to help repair the image this episode has created.

“I’m sad that what has transpired with this request has probably brought some negative light to that commission,” Welch said.

Hunt said she chooses to focus on the positive, that light always shines over darkness.

Lincoln's Juneteenth celebration is scheduled for June 19, two days after the federal holiday. The Logan County Pride celebration is scheduled for June 25.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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