Burlington Prepares for Its First-Ever Juneteenth Celebration | City | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Burlington Prepares for Its First-Ever Juneteenth Celebration

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Tyeastia Green - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Tyeastia Green

Shortly after moving to Burlington last year for a job in city government, Tyeastia Green pitched her new colleagues on celebrating Juneteenth. Green, the Queen City's first director of racial equity, inclusion and belonging, had fond memories of the holiday from growing up in Minneapolis.

Yet Green, who was then the city's only Black department head, says she was met with confused looks when she first mentioned the event. It's a portmanteau of June 19, the day in 1865 when enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, learned that they were free, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.

"The first question I was asked was, 'What's that?'" Green said of her colleagues in Vermont. "That was shocking to me because I was so used to people knowing what it is."

A little more than a year later, Burlington will celebrate its first Juneteenth on Saturday, June 19, with a day-long citywide festival of free food, educational exhibits, musical performances and more.

The city will spend $100,000 on the celebration, twice the amount it has budgeted for this year's July 3 Independence Day event. Green's office has raised another $149,000 in private donations and sponsorships. She hopes the festival will bring more awareness to Black people's struggle and resilience — and to the barriers to equality that remain 156 years after the end of slavery.

"People can learn about this complex, nuanced term that is 'race' in America," Green said. "They can learn about that in a safe and fun and engaging way."

Christal Brown - COURTESY
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  • Christal Brown

The celebration comes after a challenging first year for Green's office, which started its work during a pandemic that has disproportionately affected Black Vermonters. The office has distributed coronavirus relief grants to businesses owned by Black, Indigenous and other people of color and helped organize BIPOC vaccination clinics this spring.

The city has also grappled with issues of police violence and racial justice during the last 12 months. Spurred by the murder of George Floyd last May — on the Minneapolis block where Green grew up — Burlington activists took to the streets and convinced the city council to reduce the size of the police force. A monthlong occupation of Battery Park followed, at which protesters urged officials to fire Burlington police officers accused of violence against people of color.

Racial justice themes dominated Mayor Miro Weinberger's State of the City speech in April, when he described Juneteenth as a way to create a sense of belonging for all in Burlington. In his May budget address, he also proposed expanding Green's office from three full-time staffers to eight in the next fiscal year.

In an interview last week, the mayor said he only learned about the holiday a few years ago when he attended an event hosted by the New Alpha Missionary Baptist Church.

"I see this as a moment for the community to come together and to celebrate and reflect," Weinberger said. "When we make progress on racial justice, that's progress for everyone."

DJ Dakota - COURTESY
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  • DJ Dakota

Though Juneteenth has been observed for more than a century, the holiday has only gained traction nationally in recent years. Forty-seven states, including Vermont, recognize the day as a state holiday. In 2019, then-presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) campaigned to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Washington State will make it a paid day off for state workers next year, and Illinois lawmakers passed similar legislation last month.

Burlington's event kicks off at 10 a.m. with a brunch in City Hall Park featuring gospel music by the Lake Champlain Mass Choir and Band, as well as Southern cuisine cooked up by Great Northern chef/owner Frank Pace. The brunch's 150 seats are already spoken for, but onlookers can sit on the grass and take in the tunes.

The city will close off Main Street from South Winooski Avenue to St. Paul Street — a stretch that includes the freshly repainted Black Lives Matter street mural — for artists and other vendors to sell their wares. That morning, the ECHO Leahy Center for Lake Champlain will host a program about Black farming in Vermont.

Melo Grant - COURTESY
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  • Melo Grant

Afternoon events feature performances by Black artists, including Burlington's own DJ Melo Grant, poet Rajnii Eddins and storyteller Ferene Paris Meyer. Two traveling museums will make a stop in Burlington to showcase artifacts from the 1700s through the 21st century. And a tent at Champlain Elementary School on Pine Street will become a "healing village" for Black people to practice yoga, get their hair done and light a candle for their enslaved ancestors.

The space will allow "Black folks to have a good time with each other, be able to speak freely and be their authentic selves," Green said. "People are going to be able to come and heal."

The day will also feature panel discussions, a youth poetry contest and three new murals unveiled around the city. Vendors such as Jamaican Supreme, Kismayo Kitchen and Hangry the Donut Bar will serve free food until it runs out. Attendees will have the chance to decorate a square of fabric that will be woven into a massive Juneteenth quilt to be displayed at city hall.

JenniJohnson - COURTESY
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  • JenniJohnson

City Councilor Zoraya Hightower (P-Ward 1) is one of five Black women participating in a panel called "Contextualizing Juneteenth." The entire event, Hightower said, will be a time for Black joy after a tough year.

"It's about Black music and poetry and art," she said. "I think we all need that."

Hightower also sees the celebration as an opportunity for both Black and white people to learn about the day's significance. Hightower, who grew up in Oklahoma, said she was in college when she first heard of both Juneteenth and the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, one of the country's deadliest incidents of race-based violence. When she moved to Burlington in 2016, Hightower never expected to someday celebrate Juneteenth in the nation's second-whitest state.

"I feel like we're becoming a place that diverse people want to live," she said. "I'm feeling very grateful that this is part of what Burlington can be."

Juneteenth celebrations weren't always so welcome. News articles from nearly 100 years ago portrayed the event as a nuisance. The Burlington Free Press first printed the word "Juneteenth" on July 30, 1926, when it published a news brief from the Dallas News, which lamented that "many lawns went unmowed, many beds unmade and many shoes unshined ... while a large proportion of the Negro population took the day off for 'Juneteenth.'"

Khalid el-Hakim - COURTESY
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  • Khalid el-Hakim

Roy Hill II, a 78-year-old Black man, said he didn't know of the holiday until he was in his fifties. The Fairfax resident organized the state's first Juneteenth conference in 2002, and his wife, Shirley Boyd-Hill, was instrumental in winning state recognition of the holiday in 2008. Hill, who will be speaking at the Burlington event, said Juneteenth should be celebrated with the same fervor as the Fourth of July. The Declaration of Independence may say that "all men are created equal," but the majority of its signers also owned slaves, Hill said.

"Juneteenth is inclusive," Hill said. "It means that there is hope."

The event will also acknowledge the country's deep-seated racism. A Black History 101 Mobile Museum, which features 150 artifacts such as shackles, bills of sale for enslaved Africans and a hood worn by a member of the Ku Klux Klan, will set up at the Flynn Elementary School.

Khalid el-Hakim, a Detroit native, brings the traveling exhibit all over the country, but his stop this month in the Queen City will be his first in Vermont. A lover of 1980s hip-hop culture, el-Hakim will also display a Public Enemy album whose cover borrows a famous photograph of a lynching in Indiana in 1930. The image shows a crowd of white people staring up at two Black men hanging from trees.

KeruBo - COURTESY
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  • KeruBo

The objects may make some people feel uncomfortable, but el-Hakim said the collection is meant to evoke the struggles Black people have endured, as well as their strength.

"We have to put our history to the forefront," he said. "Having a Juneteenth festival sets the stage for people to have an experience that hopefully will widen people's perspectives on a part of American history that is not talked about."

For Green, Juneteenth is a reminder that Black people continued to be oppressed even after slavery ended. Her great-grandparents in Mississippi were sharecroppers who farmed their former master's land in exchange for rent. They later purchased a plot of that land, but it took their heirs until the 1980s to repay the debt.

Many Black families share a similar story, which inspired a motto that will be printed on T-shirts commemorating Burlington's Juneteenth celebration: "Free-ish since 1865."

Though the fight for equality continues, Green said the day will be a joyful event that celebrates being Black.

"What I'm really trying to do here is to shift culture and make sure that every single person who's living in Vermont, or even Burlington or Chittenden County, feels like they actually belong here," Green said. "I know that's a big goal to have, but it is definitely our main goal."

Correction, June 9, 2021: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the current racial makeup of the city's department heads.

See a full scheduleof events at juneteenthbtv.org

The original print version of this article was headlined "A BTV Jubilee"