Juneteenth festival aims to unite community

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The third annual Juneteenth Festival will be held once again on the West Side, though it’s moving to a new location.

The three-day event – which starts Thursday, June 14 and runs through Sunday, June 16 – will be held in the 5800 block of West Chicago Avenue. In previous years, the festival took place at Garfield Park.

Hosts for this year’s event include the West Side Historical Society, Sankofa Cultural Arts & Business Center and Sistas in the Hood.

The festival commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The festival helps inform the Austin community, a primarily African-American area, about its heritage and instill a sense of pride in the neighborhood, said Malcolm Crawford, co-owner of the Sankofa Cultural Arts & Business Center.

The festival also gives citizens and businesses an opportunity to showcase themselves at an event for the West Side, Crawford said. It’s an opportunity to display a positive perspective on African-American community, he said.

“When you have opportunities to have pride in your people, it changes the way you feel about your people,” Crawford said. “Pride in the community . . . That’s the whole objective of the Juneteenth festival.”

Rickie Brown, president of the West Side Historical Society, said he hopes the festival will create economic opportunity and decrease violence in the neighborhood.

He notes the Austin Chamber of Commerce will have an area where the unemployed can look for jobs.

“Economically, if you put a community in distress, people will find ways to survive and then they’ll implode,” Brown said. “[My hope for the festival] is to instill a consciousness into the people.”

After the death of Heaven Sutton, the 7-year-old girl shot to death outside her Austin home last summer, Brown said he asked the community to come together and find a way to decrease the violence in Austin.

From there, community leaders had the idea to use the Juneteenth festival as a way to bring people together, as well as commemorate Heaven. A special tribute will be held June 16.

The late Rev. Lewis Flowers, the longtime leader of the Westside Ministers Coalition who died in December, also will be remembered with a tree planted in his honor.

James Spearman, chairman and founder of Because I Care Inc., said he’s taking part because it’s the only festival of its kind for African-Americans and the holiday is commemorates is a significant occasion.

Spearman said he has participated in the festival the past three years and remembers it as fond experience for him and his family.

“We spent the whole day there,” Spearman said. “It was a family celebratory spirit that was in the air, [and] it was just so exciting and jubilant.”

A peace parade will begin at noon Saturday, starting at Chicago and Cicero and ending at Mayfield Avenue. The festival will offer other activities, especially for families, including a community solutions health fair, the 15th District block club resource fair and a children’s petting zoo.

Participants in the parade include Chicago Police Department’s First Deputy Al Wysinger; Cortnee R. Smith, Miss Black Illinois; former Chicago Bulls players Craig Hodges and Mickey Johnson; and the DuSable Traveling Museum. (Our partners at the Austin Weekly News just interviewed Wysinger.)

Spearman said this year he will escort Miss Black Illinois and her court in several vehicles during the parade as well as have a VIP room for her and the politicians attending the festival.

“[Juneteenth] has really grown since the first [festival] I participated in,” Spearman said. “There’s going to be dancing, [and] it’s just going to be a joyous celebration.”

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