Ayisha Elliott. Photo by Jay Eads.

Freedom For All

Eugene’s BIPOC community comes together to celebrate Juneteenth  

Eugene has had Juneteenth events before, but the holiday commemorating the end of slavery in Texas — two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation — has never been accepted and celebrated at the level of last year and this year, says Ayisha Elliott, host of the Black Girl From Eugene podcast and Eugene Weekly columnist. 

“I’m recognizing the change and momentum of the acceptance, which I really enjoy,” she adds. “I’m happy to be a part of this for both years this has happened.”

Elliott is one of the speakers at the Saturday, June 19 Juneteenth Celebration in Eugene. It’s the second year the event has been held at a large scale, featuring live music, dancing and more than 35 local BIPOC businesses including food carts, arts groups and organizations. 

More than 100 years before the Oregon Legislature passed a law recognizing Juneteenth as an official state holiday during the 2021 legislative session, Elliott says the day was primarily celebrated in the Texas county where Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger made his famous General Order No. 3, informing the people of Texas that all enslaved people were now free. 

But Black people there weren’t free to celebrate Juneteenth, Elliott adds. “They couldn’t celebrate Juneteenth out loud because it was punishable by death,” Elliott says. The only way to celebrate the holiday was at church services, she adds, and having white people come in to tell them how lucky they were to be free. 

The holiday grew, she says, as the rule breakers broke the rules, and got larger as white sympathizers supported it. Juneteenth is now on its way to becoming a federal holiday; as EW went to press, Congress had just sent the bill to President Joe Biden’s desk. 

Last year’s Juneteenth celebration was organized in the midst of the Black Lives Matter 2020 protests, sparked after George Floyd was murdered by then Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who kneeled on his neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds. 

But, Elliott says, support for Juneteenth has waned in the past year. “If you want to maintain the authenticity of being around the celebration of liberty in the country, I’d make sure you participate,” she says. “As long as many people continue to donate and make sure the celebrations are coming from the Black community.” 

For Elliott’s speech, she says she’ll lead the “Wobble,” a popular style of hip-hop line dance, which she led last year. Dancing, Elliott says, is an important way to celebrate Juneteenth. Afterward, she says she’ll discuss the importance of Juneteenth that’s authentic to the Black community here, not anywhere else. “The liberty of Black people everywhere is unique to where they are,” she adds. 

Other scheduled events representing and celebrating the local BIPOC community include two other speakers. One is Dr. Johnny Lake, a leadership, diversity and cross communication consultant. The other is Kokayi Nosakhere, an activist living in Ashland known for his Love Letter campaign. 

Live music groups include M5 Vibe, the Atmospheres, headlining act Medusa Sage Crow and the Flock and more. And dance performances include Xcape Dance Company, Michael Tumelo, Alaja Badalich. And food vendors include Yardy Eugene, Hayward’s Kitchen, Justice Shave Ice and Tony’s BBQ. 

Juneteenth, Elliott says, is about Black lives, autonomy, joy and efficacy. But, she adds, it’s not just for the Black community. “Are you happy that Black people are free? Then, yeah, you can come.”

The official Juneteenth celebration is noon to 8 pm Saturday, June 19, at Alton Baker Park. For the whole scheduled lineup, find the event on Facebook.