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Oregon communities to celebrate Juneteenth

From celebrating hair to family reunions, Juneteenth – joyful, plentiful with music, food and community – is a visible reminder of resilience in a state which once envisioned itself as a white utopia.

Juneteenth became a federal holiday in 2021, and is also celebrated as Freedom Day, Jubilee, Emancipation Day or second independence day, as it marks the day the nation’s last enslaved people gained freedom. On June 19, 1865, Union Army troops arrived in Galveston, Texas and announced enslaved black people in the state were free by executive decree. Juneteenth celebrations began the following year in churches and homes.

The commemoration of that history holds significance in Oregon, which prohibited slavery in 1843, but one year later, passed its first Black exclusion law, permitting the punishment of Blacks who tried to settle in the state. Oregon’s exclusion law would remain in the state constitution until 1926. Individual communities also took action to exclude African-Americans and other minorities, and became known as “sundown towns.” According to the Oregon Remembrance Project, “it is estimated that most of Oregon was once a sundown town.”

The celebrations connect the past to the present in joyful gatherings. You’ll hear “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black national anthem. The Emancipation Proclamation will be read aloud, and there’ll be live music, food, activities for kids, and Black-owned vendors and exhibits.

Eugene is celebrating its fourth annual Juneteenth on Sunday, June 18th at Alton Baker Park with the theme “Black Hair Matters.”

“Hair is art," said Drea Smith, co-founder of Eugene Juneteenth. "It's a very huge art form for African Americans, especially as our crown that we wear on our head."

The event will feature stylists from the Hapi Hair Studio in South Eugene.

"Cherie Gaston is the owner and she set up this huge, beautiful idea to have hair stylists come and display some of the different hairstyles that black people wear," said Smith. "So [it’s] another opportunity to educate people who may not be familiar with Black hair care practices, and how special it is for us to take care of our hair and why."

Elsewhere in Oregon, Coos Bay has chosen the theme “Family Reunion” for its third Juneteenth celebration, which kicks off on June 17th with a free talk at the Coos History museum at 11 a.m. Keynote speaker Taylor Stewart of the Oregon Remembrance Project spearheaded Coos Bay’s official acknowledgement in 2021 of Alonzo Tucker, Oregon’s most widely documented victim of lynching.

Stewart told KLCC the event created a new chapter in Tucker’s story, which no longer ends with his death in 1902.

He said Coos Bay’s yearly continuation of a Juneteenth celebration shows how communities can transform historical wrongs into new ways to pursue freedom, liberty, and justice.

“The Alonzo Tucker story is a prime example for what we can do in Oregon regarding our history of racial injustice, that we can actually create good in our world because of these stories, and that we need not feel powerless to them,” said Stewart.

Later in the day, the Coos Bay celebration continues from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. with a celebratory reception at Black Market Gourmet.

Jamar Ruff, director of the South Coast Equity Coalition, which is organizing this year’s event, said the goal is to have a party where everyone is welcome.

“[At] a family reunion everybody is invited," said Ruff. "And when it's done right it's not just the Black people. I mean, my grandmother's neighbors were coming over, you know, people that she loved, people that loved our family. And so we want to make sure that it is an all inclusive event. And [that] people get an opportunity to learn about Black culture, especially learning about things that are not necessarily in the history book."

On Monday, June 19th, Coos Bay’s celebration concludes with a free screening of the Disney movie ‘Soul’ at the Egyptian Theater.

“My hope is that, as we gather this coming Juneteenth, we can talk about what we hope Juneteenth can be not just in Coos Bay, but in Oregon across the whole,” said Stewart, who’s also helping Grants Pass launch its first-ever Juneteenth celebration.

With the support of Stewart and the Oregon Remembrance Project, the Grants Pass community is working to be known as a sunrise town, where everyone feels safe and respected. “Sunrise” is an intentional opposite to “sundown,” as sundown towns, including Grants Pass, purposefully excluded African Americans.

This year, the Oregon Remembrance Project showed up for Grant Pass’s annual Memorial Day weekend Boatnik Parade, wearing bright yellow t-shirts, a stark contrast to the white hoods historically worn by the Ku Klux Klan, which used to march in the parade.

“It is an example of what we can do with our histories of injustice, we have a responsibility to the history that we inherit. And I believe that we actually have the power to rewrite the ending to stories of historical injustice,” Stewart said.

Grants Pass celebrates Juneteenth on June 19th from 5:30 to 7:30 at Reinhart Park, with food trucks, lawn games, music and bingo.

Where to Celebrate 

Bend - Juneteenth Central Oregon presents “Discovering our Roots” at Drake Park on June 17th, from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., and on June 18th from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.. From the organizers: “This fun, family-friendly event will be a two-day festival elevating Juneteenth throughout the state of Oregon. It will feature unique entertainment, music, food, and dancing. There will be face painting for the kids, a variety of historical and educational exhibits, artistic displays, and recreation.”

Coos Bay - Juneteenth Celebration 2023, themed “Family Reunion” kicks off on June 17th with a free discussion from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Coos History Museum with Taylor Stewart from Oregon Remembrance Project. Then, the festivities move to Black Market Gourmet for a reception from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. featuring food, music, a virtual exhibit and celebration. On June 19th, the Egyptian Theatre hosts a free showing of the Disney Pixar movie Soul at 6 p.m. The animated movie tells the story of Joe, a jazz pianist who earns a living teaching middle school, but who yearns to become a full-time jazz musician. Joe gets a big break, but an untimely accident threatens to derail his opportunity.

Corvallis -The Linn Benton branch of the NAACP hosts a Juneteenth Celebration on June 19th at the Corvallis Community Center from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.. The event includes a Black-owned business expo, community fair, free food, music and arts and crafts.

Eugene - Eugene’s Juneteenth Celebration takes place on June 18th from noon to 7 p.m. in Alton Baker Park. This year’s theme is “Black Hair Matters.” The festivities include a special tribute to Black fathers, food, all-day entertainment, plus Black-owned vendors and businesses, activities for kids, and an official “hair zone,” featuring free education and live hair demos.

Grants Pass - Grants Pass will hold its first Juneteenth celebration on June 19 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Reinheirt Park. The event will feature food trucks, lawn games, face painting, music and Black history bingo.

Salem - On June 19th The Willamette Heritage Center and Oregon Black Pioneers will hold a community walk, “Freedom’s Footsteps: Juneteenth Community History Walk,” from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., starting at the Willamette Heritage Center. Also on June 19th, there’s a Juneteenth Celebration at Bush House Museum from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.. The Salem Art Association will celebrate with an official ribbon cutting for the new Waldo Bogle Gallery, named in honor of an early Black pioneer. That same night, the Salem-Keizer branch of the NAACP holds its annual dessert fundraiser at 7 p.m. at the Chemeketa Eola Event Center. This year’s theme is “This little light of mine: shining beyond the darkness.” From the organizers: “Strategically scheduled on the evening of Juneteenth, we will collectively reflect and solidify our efforts to ensure each child’s light burns brighter and their dreams and aspirations are fulfilled.”

Jill Burke became KLCC's arts reporter in February, 2023.