Sonoma County Juneteenth celebrates 50th year amid growing recognition nationwide
A beam above the pulpit of Prayer Chapel Outreach Mission Church in west Santa Rosa bears a message Marteal Perry instilled in her six children and the hundreds of foster kids she raised.
“A child brought up in church is very seldom brought up in court,” it reads.
Her eldest granddaughter, Sydni Locke-Davenport, 58, who maintains the family’s bucolic 10-acre property off South Wright Road, thinks that would be Perry’s message to the area Black community if she was alive this weekend when everyone gathers virtually to observe Juneteenth, the annual commemoration of the ending of slavery. Her grandmother held the first Santa Rosa celebration in 1954.
The awareness of a day celebrated widely by Black Americans for 154 years has reached new heights this year. Also known as Freedom Day, it comes amid a backdrop of nearly a month of protesting and civil unrest nationwide, after the May 25 death of George Floyd who died while being taken into police custody when a white Minneapolis cop pinned him down on the street and pressed a knee into the back of his neck for nearly nine minutes.
As the country reckons with systemic racism, this year’s Juneteenth could have more significance than any other in recent memory, despite coronavirus restrictions forcing the 50th annual MLK Juneteenth Festival from the lively scenes of the Santa Rosa’s South Park neighborhood to an online gathering via Zoom.
“My grandmother would not be surprised (by the death of Floyd). She witnessed way worse,” said Locke-Davenport, a Juneteenth festival committee member. “But there’s only one person that guides you and is over your life, and that’s God. She would tell people to put their trust in Jesus, and everything would end up alright.”
“Mother Perry” was a beloved cosmetologist and beautician in Santa Rosa who died in 1996 at 87. She also was an evangelist and community builder who provided foster care for the marginalized and mentally ill.
In the 1950s she built the community’s first pool for Black people on her property. When the city issued her a permit, the Ku Klux Klan protested, Locke-Davenport said.
Perry bore the scars of white supremacy across her neck, a remnant of a vicious attack she never discussed, but likely happened earlier in her life when she lived in the South, her granddaughter said.
Perry was born in Alto, Texas, a town three hours north of Galveston where on June 19, 1865, two years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, a Union general arrived telling the last slaves in America the Confederacy had surrendered and they were free men.
Rubin Scott, president of the NAACP Sonoma County and a Juneteenth committee member, said it’s the lasting legacy of that moment, and the resistance to achieving true freedom, that people need to remember every time the calendar reaches June 19.
Scott believes the social climate has been forever changed after Floyd’s death, and people are now invested in understanding what it means to be Black in America. That’s given Juneteenth more mainstream acceptance, even though the fight for equality continues, he said.
“Juneteenth is an acknowledgment of us to understand our independence came later. It didn’t come on the Fourth of July,” Scott said. “Although there’s changes - and we can see changes and live together - there’s an underlying feeling in society that we’re not completely and totally included. Juneteenth reminds us that, although we do have independence, we have a ways to go for complete equality.”
The annual festival, usually held at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park, is a vibrant affair. Sports tournaments, family activities, food vendors, R&B, gospel and jazz music performances enliven a daylong celebration, said lead organizer Nancy Rogers, co-owner of Red Rose Catering. For many Black Sonoma County residents, it’s the best chance each year to reconnect with neighbors, she said.
The two-hour virtual event Saturday will feature many of the same staples, like an opening prayer, speeches and live music, but it might not go smoothly, she joked.
“It’s not going to be the same as it would be out in the park talking, laughing and having fun,” Rogers said. “But the same schedule out there, we’re going to do in here. It will just have a different feeling with everybody at home (on Zoom).”
Almost every state recognizes Juneteenth in some capacity, either as a holiday or official observance. Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm made a proclamation at Tuesday’s city council meeting to honor Saturday’s annual celebration.
Despite symbolic resolutions from Congress every year, its status as a federal holiday remains elusive. Numerous companies like Spotify, Twitter, Mastercard and Nike this year made it a paid holiday for employees. On Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared June 19 a holiday for state employees with plans to advance legislation that would make it statewide next year.
U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who is cosponsoring a nonbinding resolution with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, said it’s time the federal government followed what many states and employers already have done.
“I can’t think of too many things more important in the entire history of our country than freeing the slaves,” Huffman said.
Rev. Lee Turner, head of Community Baptist Church, who leads the Santa Rosa festival’s opening prayer every year, welcomes federal recognition, but Black Americans have been using vacation days and even sick days to celebrate it for years, he said. Like the origin of Juneteenth, federal holiday status would be another case of catching up to something long overdue.
“It’s been that holiday nationally for Black folk,” Turner said. “Now we’re waiting for others to say, ‘OK it’s a national holiday?’ That’s like waiting for them to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. We can make it happen on our own, and don’t have to wait anymore.”
You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @YousefBaig.