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Bloomington's city-backed Juneteenth event celebrates freedom — with lots of free stuff to do!

 Three women in colorful dresses side-hug and smile at the camera. Behind them is a large red and yellow lawn sign that reads "Juneteenth 1865." People are picnicking in the background.
city of Bloomington
Bloomington's annual Junteenth celebration moved to Miller Park in 2022 (pictured). This year's event includes free access to Miller Park Zoo, which has a new South America exhibit.

Saturday marks the 30th anniversary of Bloomington’s Juneteenth celebration, give or take.

Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, commemorates the official end of slavery in the United States when a group of Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865. It was more than two years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation ending the Civil War, and several months after the 13th amendment passed.

Perhaps metaphorically, Juneteenth is the United States’ oldest holiday marking emancipation. And it has taken time to trickle into many peoples’ consciousness.

“Our instructions from the mayor in late 2020 were to come alongside the Black History Project to see how the city could help them,” said Michael Hurt, who’s served as Bloomington’s chief diversity and inclusion officer for the last 2 1/2 years.

The Bloomington-Normal Black History Project held its first Juneteenth event in 1993 on the quad at Illinois Wesleyan University. This iteration dissolved in 1999, followed by a period of dormancy that ended in 2003. The African American Forum hosted a Juneteenth celebration in Forrest Park until 2015, when that event also fizzled.

A relaunch came in 2019, when rain forced the festival indoors. That was followed by a virtual event in 2020, which was followed by an entire week of community conversations and programming with the McLean County Museum of History in 2021.

So, despite three decades of Juneteenth celebrations in Bloomington, Saturday’s festivities really only have last year to draw from, when the event again moved to Miller Park and the city began providing support.

“In large part, the impetus was based on the events that took place in 2020 in terms of police interaction with African American citizens finally culminating in the murder of George Floyd,” Hurt said. “The city administration took a very serious look at our processes here in the City of Bloomington and what has become popular around the country: recognizing the significance of the contributions of African Americans to the tapestry of the United States.

“So, it just made sense that Juneteenth — which is the punctuation that put an end to slavery in the United States — was somehow celebrated,” Hurt said.

President Biden recognized Juneteenth as a federal holiday in 2021. The same year, the City of Bloomington created an official citywide holiday — though the city has yet to approve a day off for city workers.

Thus, this year’s Juneteenth festival is Saturday, June 17, to give individuals and families who don’t have Monday off a chance to join a three-decade tradition in Bloomington.

The daylong festival is themed “Celebrate Freedom.”

“I think it’s very prudent to recognize that African Americans haven’t always been free in this country,” said Gregory Wilson, community relations manager for the City of Bloomington.

To that end, most of the activities at the Juneteenth celebration are free, including rare open access to Miller Park Zoo for the day. Also planned: bouncy houses and face painting for youth, singing and dance performances, plus free haircuts provided by Bloomington-Normal Barber College. Local merchants will be part of a vendor fair and food trucks will keep guests satiated. And rumor has it, a very special V.I.P., the Little Mermaid, is due to make an appearance, too.

While Juneteenth is certainly an important holiday for African American families, this inclusive event is designed for everyone.

“No one should feel odd about attending the event if you’re not an African American,” said Hurt. “It is not an African American event; it is an American event. This is one of the ways we can look back on what has happened without the guilt and all the emotion that goes with that. We’re celebrating freedom.”

“Bouncy houses don’t discriminate,” added Wilson. “Free haircuts for the youth — that doesn’t discriminate. I hope that these activities are welcoming to individuals of all cultures.”

Bloomington’s “Celebrate Freedom” Juneteenth event kicks off at noon Saturday with opening remarks by the Rev. Elexis Wilson, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech recited by Pastor David Brown. Festivities continue at Miller Park, 1020 S. Morris Ave. in Bloomington, until 6:30 p.m.

On Friday, June 17, the Not In Our School steering committee is hosting its own Juneteenth community building event and vendor fair at 6:30 p.m. The gathering is free and open to the public at the Coffeehouse, 114 E. Beaufort St. in Uptown Normal.

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Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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