CHAMPAIGN – Organizers throughout Champaign County say Juneteenth is about history, but also about bringing attention to systemic issues that the African American community still faces.
Juneteenth, which falls on June 19, is also now an official state holiday, after Gov. JB Pritzker signed legislation on Wednesday.
Rantoul resident Debbra Sweat was having coffee with her friends when the conversation about Juneteenth, a day celebrating the end of slavery in the United States, came up.
She says discussions about George Floyd’s murder by a white police officer in Minneapolis, systemic racism and whitewashing of African American history prompted Sweat and her friends to form a committee to hold Rantoul’s first Juneteenth celebration.
They received support from the mayor and other public officials to plan an event scheduled for Saturday at Wabash Park in Rantoul. Festivities include music, games, food and live performances. A kickoff concert is taking place on Friday evening.
Sweat says underrepresented communities in Rantoul seem to keep these types of celebratory events within their circles. She wants to change this.
“The Juneteenth event is to help educate the community, educate our youth and it’s about sharing our history,” Sweat says. “I hope it opens more conversations and dialogue.”
Another group planning a Juneteenth celebration is HV Neighborhood Transformation, an organization in Champaign-Urbana that targets gun violence in the community.
The organization is holding a Juneteenth event on Saturday at West Side Park in Champaign, with food trucks, games and entertainment.
“In celebrating Juneteenth, part of that is to remember who we are as African Americans in this country, and as a country, to collectively to understand the significance of systemic injustices that are still in place that still affect us,” says William Brown, HV Neighborhood Transformation founder.
Brown says the goal is unity, because with people working together, it’s hard for systemic structures hurting the community to stay in place.
HV Neighborhood Transformation’s Juneteenth event also marks the start of its 40 Days of Peace campaign, aimed at raising awareness about gun violence in Champaign-Urbana.
Brown says they’ll spend every weekend in a different “high hope” area, cleaning it up, praying and providing resources.
“We have to approach everything, every angle to look at gun violence as a part of systematic structures,” Brown says.
The Champaign Park District is also hosting a virtual Juneteenth celebration on their Facebook page this Saturday.
“First and foremost, we want people to understand the significance,” says Chelsea Norton, director of marketing and communications for the park district.
Norton says history was their priority. Then, she says they looked at how they could incorporate creative elements and celebrate the local community.
The Juneteenth celebration on the Champaign Park District Facebook page will include educational elements, dance performances and local musicians.
Norton says having online content makes it easier to share with family and friends that aren’t in Champaign-Urbana.
“We hope as we share info on Juneteenth, people will grow in their understanding of the cultural significance of it and their peers, the different people in our community and the backgrounds we have,” Norton says.