When Makeda Peterson was growing up, history was personal to her.
Her father, Horace Peterson III, founded the Black Archives of Mid-America. He also started Kansas City’s Juneteenth celebration in 1980.
As a current organizer and coordinator of Juneteenth KC, she is continuing his legacy.
Juneteenth commemorates the moment when slaves in Texas found out they were free — more than two years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Peterson remembers growing up with the celebration.
“It’s just the sense of community that I remember, that feeling of walking in the 18th and Vine District,” she told host Gina Kaufmann on KCUR’s Central Standard. “Smelling the barbecue, seeing animals and seeing everyone interacting in that sense of family, and also pride of being an African-American.”
According to Peterson, it’s huge that Kansas City has a Juneteenth celebration. Not all cities have one.
“We have such a rich history of our story, from slavery even through the Civil Rights era,” she said.
KC is also a part of that story, she said, with Troost as a socioeconomic dividing line and Westport a former trading site for slaves.
“How (Kansas City) became a rich city of African-American culture with jazz and the Renaissance era, you see the progression … from being a people of struggle to being a people that are thriving,” she said.
Her father, who studied African-American history and Missouri folklore, had a genuine love for his culture and his people, and he wanted to share it, she said.
“He was a collector. I really believe my dad, in essence, too, was a hoarder,” she said.
Elders in the community were getting rid of things that were instrumental in their history, she added, and he didn’t want to see them thrown away.
For Peterson, history wasn’t a set of facts to learn; it became something that was tangible. As a child, she remembers playing in Aunt Lucy’s cabin, a dilapidated slave cabin that her dad found, transported to Kansas City and rebuilt in the Black Archives.
The Peterson household was an academic one, she said, and her parents took her to a lot of activities and museums.
“It really enriched my life and exposed me to a well-rounded perspective on community and what our history is,” she said.
That’s partly what inspired her to work on KC’s Juneteenth celebration, she said.
This year, she and the organizers revived the parade after 20 years.
“The committee had to go straight from complete scratch, Googling ‘how do I plan a parade,’” she said.
The Juneteenth kickoff parade, which took place last weekend, included drill teams, floats and horse riders doing tricks.
One of the motivating factors for KC’s celebration is to redefine and understand their identity, Peterson said. A lot of the elders in the community are starting to pass away, and there’s a generation shift.
Plus, according to Peterson, a lot of kids don’t understand what Juneteenth is; they think it’s just a festival.
“The kids need to understand that slavery was not that long ago; our rights were not given to us that long ago,” she said. “Even our right to vote is not in stone. Congress can go tomorrow and say, ‘Hey, we want to repeal that amendment” and our right to vote can be gone.
“We have to focus, we have to stay relevant,” she said. “And it is on them now to take the torch and pass it on, but it is our responsibility to make sure we give them the information, that we tell them the story.”
For Peterson, the festival can be an emotional time. Her father died, unexpectedly and tragically, in 1992, and Juneteenth falls the day before Father’s Day.
“It really is a labor of love, and it’s something I want to do for him,” she said.
Juneteenth KC starts at 18th and Vine at noon this Saturday, June 17.
Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at email@example.com.