Two-week-old Zya napped in the arms of her mother during her first Juneteenth celebration.
Janae Colter, of Lawrence, said her 1-year-old son, Gabriel, was also present for the event.
“Just exposing them to the culture is very important to me, and Gabriel loves his grandma,” she said, referring to her mother, Janine Colter, who helped start the Lawrence, KS Juneteenth Organization and is its current president.
“So just seeing her in the spotlight is empowering because he looks up to her a lot.”
Asked what Juneteenth means to her, Janae said it’s a celebration.
“It’s a celebration of freedom; of how far Black people have come,” she said. “I grew up in Lawrence, so just seeing where my mom started with Juneteenth and where it’s at now, too, is important to me. The community is more involved. I think that’s a neat thing.”
Saturday’s celebration at South Park, which was very well attended despite sunny, humid heat, was part of four days of Juneteenth events that Janine and her fellow organizers planned this year.
The day also featured recognitions of numerous community members — and the organizations and businesses they run — who have made a difference in Lawrence.
Just before Natasha Neal took the stage, the song “Stand Up,” from the 2019 biographical film “Harriet” about Harriet Tubman played over the loudspeakers. The powerful song became an anthem of protesters who shut down Massachusetts Street for days in late June of 2020, calling for racial justice.
The lyrics are literal about Tubman’s work to bring enslaved people to freedom, and figurative to the struggle that persists today: “I’m gonna stand up / Take my people with me / Together we are going / To a brand new home / Far across the river / Can you hear freedom calling? / Calling me to answer / Gonna keep on keepin’ on / I can feel it in my bones.”
Neal was selected by the organization to receive a certificate of recognition for social justice.
“The very street that we’re standing on right now, she shut down … because she wanted to make sure that our voices were heard, and that she was doing the work of the people,” Janine Colter said in presenting Neal with the certificate.
“It is not easy, but you did it and you’re still standing. And we love and appreciate you.”
Neal spoke briefly onstage. She said the protest was not only about racial injustice — the movement had also helped feed people, helped register voters and more. She thanked everyone who had been there in support and recalled, “It was beautiful. We all came together.”
Later Saturday, Neal said coming back to Mass Street and seeing it shut down for the Juneteenth celebration “brought back memories.”
“When I came back here today, I was like, ‘We really did that,’” she said. “… Our community needs things like this all the time.”
Another community member recognized was Njeri Shomari. Janine introduced her, saying, “I call her my Black Queen. And she is the only queen that I call Queen every time I talk to on the phone, other than my mom.”
“Thank you for my sisters who hold me up. Thank you for my brothers who surround me with protection. Thank you for my community that allows me to serve,” Shomari said.
Among others who were honored by the organization Saturday afternoon were David Lewis, of Milton’s Cafe, the Ballard Center, Just Food, Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, Cynthia Eubanks, Lois Orth-Lopes, Peggy Johnson and Mandy Enfield of the United Way of Douglas County, and Monica Dittmer of the Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence.
Juneteenth essay contest winner Roman Jasso read his work about Mexican American activist, attorney and professor José Ángel Gutiérrez, who challenged people in power by launching a third party, the Raza Unida Party. Jasso said Gutiérrez had inspired him to get involved in promoting voter registration,“as it is truly one of the most influential ways you can have a voice and representation in this country.”
‘A gathering of people’
In the street and down the sidewalk on the east side of South Park, community members celebrated, and small business owners and artists displayed their wares.
Marsha Lyles, of Lawrence, was excited that the celebration was back to being held in person celebration after a COVID-19 hiatus. She brought her artwork, which she calls Canvas Divas. She downloads images and cuts them out, or orders wood that is precut, “and then I bling ‘em out,” she said.
She said she was inspired to create this artwork because she was depressed, and the art was a little cheaper than therapy. She also takes custom orders now.
“Growing up there wasn’t a Juneteenth per se,” she said. “There was always something going on to acknowledge people of color, but it wasn’t labeled Juneteenth, so I’m pretty excited about this today,” she said. “And the turnout was awesome. It’s really awesome.”
She said to her, Juneteenth means “understanding the struggle of a lie. That’s what it means — and then overcoming that lie.”
She referenced the two and a half years between when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed and June 19, 1865, when the people enslaved in Galveston, Texas, actually learned that they were freed.
“The country was made aware; however, part of the country chose not to acknowledge and continued the path that they were on,” Lyles said.
Kevin Caro, owner of KC’s Gifts & Surprises, was in attendance with his wife, Carol. He started his business in 2019, and started doing more with it when he was furloughed from his job amid the pandemic.
If you can request it, Caro can customize it — or as his card reads, “If you can imagine it we can bring it to life.”
“I do engravings on wood, ceramic tile, acrylic, leather, porcelain, slate. My business is personalized,” he said.
One of the works on display was created by Caro’s granddaughter, Samaria, a Lawrence High School student. “She wants to go into art, so I to try to encourage her,” he said.
Of Saturday’s event, he said it was good to see the community come together, and he was glad people are learning about parts of history that they never knew about before.
Carlas Taylor-Hollie started her business, Distinct Designz, in 2020. She purchases jewelry from the east coast to the west coast and imports some.
“I’m just a lover of jewelry. That came from my mom — she did a lot of encouraging, you know — what she used to wear,” she said. “I like the bold, unique jewelry.”
She’s also started making custom handbags and she’s partnered with various print providers who will print her designs on bags. She said this was the second Juneteenth event she’s gotten to attend.
Tyshwn Williams heard about the event from a buddy and came from Topeka to be there. He said it was a cool experience.
“Juneteenth to me is about a gathering of people. That’s what I feel like. All cultures, everybody, different colors, different races — that’s how I feel about it,” he said.
Yolanda Franklin, of Lawrence, recently started a nonprofit, Nothing Unique Organization.
She said their main mission is their second chance program to help people with felony convictions get established with IDs, jobs, schooling and housing. They’re also trying to work with the local school district on their PASS initiative — Parents Against School Shootings.
Looking at the community coming together on Saturday, Franklin said she was “speechless.”
Jesslyn Jenkins, events coordinator for Nothing Unique Organization, said Saturday meant an opportunity for her to give back to the community.
“I love seeing the people, I like meeting new people, networking, anything to better help our community,” she said.
Under a sunny yellow canopy, Lawrence City Commissioner Amber Sellers drummed with Alberta Wright.
Wright, who was offering mini lessons to anyone who was interested, said it seemed like drumming was phasing out.
“It’s time to bring it back, and it should never phase out,” she said.
Sellers said the Juneteenth event was wonderful, and she couldn’t be more proud of the community or of event organizers.
“I only expect it to get bigger from here, and I think that’s what Lawrence needs to help be able to take part in sharing and understanding history and the importance and significance of the history of different cultures and how that all comes together and plays a part in our existence,” she said.
She said it was worth sitting out in the heat to be there collectively, in fellowship.
The Juneteenth celebration at South Park was set to run through 8 p.m. Saturday. See more about planned events coming up Sunday at this link.
Photos by Molly Adams
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More coverage — Juneteenth 2022:
”This year’s celebration of Juneteenth, we hosted the largest gathering of community members and vendors than ever before. None of that would have been possible without the help and support given to us by these special community partners,” the Lawrence, Kansas Juneteenth Organization writes.