Juneteenth celebration renewed in Ardmore with multiple events

Michael D. Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite
Sun breaks through clouds during a Juneteenth celebration Friday. While rain kept most of the event indoors at First Christian Church, a brief respite drew many outdoors.

The rain stayed persistent enough Friday afternoon to drive many indoors, but the clouds gave way temporarily for Ardmoreites to head outside for enough time for a hula hoop contest and potato sack race.

Some of the adults were seen with umbrellas, but the children, many already in swimsuits, didn't seem to mind the light drizzle while they played on slip and slides, an inflatable water park, or even just some basketball.

The scene is common in cities and towns across the country every June 19 but is one that has not been seen locally for several years. Organizers of this year's Juneteenth celebration said there were local events in years past but could not clearly remember just how long it has been.

A young girl receives guidance during Juneteenth celebrations Friday. Inflatable toys were available for around 20 children at the event and even some of the youngest attendees were seen taking precautions against the spread of COVID-19.

“The older generation kind of fell off and after everything that was going on, it’s like ‘okay, we need to get back in the community and get something going,” said LaSharron Gordon. She and fellow organizer Da’Jour Lee remembered some gatherings but could not recall anything similar in the past five years.

“We didn’t celebrate these last few years, but about five years ago we always blocked off Main Street and the whole community came together to celebrate,” Lee said. Gordon said she could remember block parties and an entire week of Juneteenth events when she was growing up.

Lee said Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, started the long journey to equality for her ancestors. “It’s like the Fourth of July for Black people,” she said. “It’s when we were actually free.”

Event organizer Da'Jour Lee, third from left, with family and fellow organizers Friday. Lee said she and her siblings wanted to revive Juneteenth celebrations in Ardmore after recent highlights regarding Black Americans across the nation.

On June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and declared all persons held as slaves had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation more than two years earlier. Reasons for the delay are unclear but accounts suggest either a messenger on his way to Texas was killed or the news was deliberately withheld, according to Juneteenth.com.

Regardless of the delay, the date marked an important step in the liberation of Black Americans from slavery. However, it would be another 89 years before segregation would be considered unconstitutional and another 100 years before the Civil Rights Act barred states from disenfranchising Black voters.

Longtime Ardmore teacher Mary Johnson attended the Friday event and expressed a sense of pride in seeing former students plan such wide-scale community events. Celebrations that started on Thursday and ran through Saturday showed Johnson that young adults in Ardmore are capable of making an impact on the community.

“It’s important that they know the history of Black people and the contributions we’ve made over the past 400 years,” Johnson said of current and former students. “If my kids are given the opportunity, they can go many places and do many things.”

Children take part in a hula hoop contest during a Juneteenth celebration Friday. While much of the event remained indoors due to weather, a break in the rain sent nearly everyone outdoors temporarily for games and music.

Juneteenth celebrations in Ardmore were put together in about a week. Lee said she was inspired to resume the celebrations after strong support from community members during a march last month, which she also helped organize, to protest the death of George Floyd while in police custody the week before.

Organizers said the biggest thing they learned from this year’s event is just how broad local support is and plan on making next year’s celebration even bigger. Juneteenth, while technically an informal celebration in Oklahoma, may soon become more widely celebrated

About 52% of all Americans said they were at least somewhat aware of Juneteenth, according to a Harris Poll cited by USA Today. In the days leading up to Juneteenth, many major companies like Twitter and Nike announced plans to begin observing the date with a paid holiday. 

The push to make Juneteenth a recognized holiday has been renewed thanks in part to the recent Black Lives Matter movement. State Rep. Jason Lowe, D-Oklahoma City, on Friday announced he would file legislation in the next session to make June 19 a state holiday.

Masked attendees of Juneteenth celebrations Friday watch a hula hoop contest. Masks and face shields were among precautions taken among the COVID-19 pandemic.

“June 19, 1865, was not just the last day that Blacks experiences chattel slavery,” Lowe said in a statement. “It was the last day that Americans did too, and that is something we should all celebrate together.”

Friday’s celebration in Ardmore saw a diverse crowd even as the rain resumed and pushed everyone back indoors. 

“This is a holiday for all Americans. We just happen to be Black, but this is for everybody,” Johnson said.