Lawrence Juneteenth community celebration inspires power for local change

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On their matching lawn chairs, married couple Bill and Alcenia Shepard stationed themselves under a tree’s shade in South Park, enjoying the lively atmosphere of the Lawrence Juneteenth celebration.

The pair laughed and agreed that the secret to being together for 52 years, come next month, is giving one another some space when needed. They also agreed that celebrating Black liberation means everything to them.

When he was an elementary student, Bill attended Lincoln School, which was the last all-Black grade school in Lawrence before it integrated with Woodlawn School in 1955 following the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. He’s remained friends with many of his classmates ever since — some of whom he’d be able to reconnect with at the event.

“We’re just looking forward to seeing people that we haven’t seen for quite a while,” Bill said.

Black liberation resounded in downtown Lawrence, with food, music, games, art vendors and more to enjoy. Saturday’s event saw an even greater turnout than last year’s.

“It’s Juneteenth — we wanna celebrate and just have fun,” said Leslie Brown, who attended the event with her two daughters. “… Just remembering our past and where we came from, how we survived. Our past, we talk about that as a family quite a bit, and we’re here celebrating our freedom day.”

Carlas Taylor-Hollie, owner of Distinct Designz, said she was grateful to be honoring Black heritage and freedom while sharing her business with her community. Many of her pieces are handmade, including handcrafted jewelry from Kenya, Ecuador and the Philippines as well as handbags she designed herself, she said.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Carlas Taylor-Hollie, owner of Distinct Designz

“I like to promote different nationalities,” Taylor-Hollie said. “I also like to promote very unique jewelry — handcrafted jewelry that you’re not gonna just go in the store and find. And I really like bold, statement jewelry. I got that from my mother.”

Lawrence Juneteenth’s annual racial justice essay contest highlights Lawrence high school students who have something to say. This year’s theme challenged applicants to consider what they would use their power to change.

Javon Allen was awarded first place for his essay about his journey navigating his anger as an elementary school student.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Lawrence Juneteenth racial essay contest winner Javon Allen accepts his first place award.

Children early on need help understanding their internal anger, or else the effects can snowball, Allen explained in his winning essay.

“I’ve seen how anger can tear people apart. I read about how anger shaped this nation into what it is today. All I want is for one day anger to not be a bad thing, but a thing that’s good and can help people be better,” Allen told the crowd.

“I think it would greatly benefit kids and their elementary days to be taught about anger and how to properly and safely handle it. I think as a nation we need to tell our kids that when they get angry, it’s OK to talk about it and it’s OK to be angry, but it’s not OK to resort to violence and hatred on others because of how you feel. When handled properly, anger is a good thing and just another one of our emotions. Improperly handled, anger turns into hatred, violence or both.”


Including Allen, the Lawrence Juneteenth celebration brought together countless local changemakers.

Barbara Sabol, co-owner of Homeworks USA, was present to share about her organization and recruit more volunteers. Homeworks USA works to create and maintain affordable housing for 18-year-olds aging out of foster care.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Barbara Sabol rides through the Lawrence Juneteenth parade.

Lawrence Juneteenth organizer Janine Colter honored several activists, community volunteers, artists, school district leaders, business owners and religious leaders on stage for their contributions across the city.

One honoree, therapist and human rights activist Caleb Stephens, gave a speech that centered the contributions of Black trans and queer people, despite systemic struggles they face. 

He cited Marsha P. Johnson and the Stonewall Riots of 1969 as well as anti-LGBTQ+ attacks today and encouraged unity.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Caleb Stephens, right, hugs Janine Colter after she presents to him his community award.

“I challenge you to venture outside of your own experience and reality and meet and cherish all Black folks, especially Black queer and trans folks because they have truly and without cease shaped me into who I am today,” Stephens said. “We cannot be a true community if we aren’t willing to fight for the most marginalized and oppressed of our people. If I’m to be celebrated, celebrate the people that help place me together — the pieces of me.”

Finally, an award was presented to Colter herself, recognizing her for keeping the local Juneteenth celebration alive since 2003, roughly.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Janine Colter

Following a parade down Massachusetts Street that kicked off the daylong celebration, attendees browsed through the wide variety of art and food vendors and learned from stations set up with community resources.

Oral and visual histories were told as part of honoring Black heritage. The Underground Railroad Tour, a new bus tour developed by the Watkins Museum of History, took participants to explore three historic sites in Lawrence throughout the day.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Janine Colter and community honoree Alex Kimball Williams, who is holding her daughter.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Community members are honored with awards for their service and contributions to Lawrence.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Gus Peters accepts his award for winning the 2023 Lawrence Juneteenth T-shirt design contest.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Janine Colter, left, embraces Lawrence Police Lt. Myrone Grady while presenting to him his community award.

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

Molly Adams (she/her), photojournalist and news operations coordinator for The Lawrence Times, can be reached at molly (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Check out more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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