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Interest In Kansas City's Juneteenth Skyrockets Just As Many Celebrations Go Virtual

The Black Archives of Mid-America
Historian Horace Peterson is widely credited with starting the Juneteenth celebration in Kansas City in 1980.

This year’s Juneteenth holiday in Kansas City comes as Black Lives Matter protests across the metro move into their fourth week.

Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S. and has been celebrated since the Civil War era, but local historian Horace Peterson is credited with bringing the holiday to the area on in 1980, after traveling to Texas and seeing its popularity in southern states.

Horace Peterson’s daughter, Makeda Peterson, is the program director of this year’s Juneteenth KC program. She says the organization’s website has seen a 1,000% increase in traffic since the protests began.

“Thirty days ago before all of this really happened, one in three people probably knew what Juneteenth was. We now have a great surge of people who are wanting to obtain information and are really looking to understand the story,” said Peterson Wednesday on KCUR’s Up To Date.

Educating the community on the history behind the holiday has always been the goal of Juneteenth KC, Peterson said, but it has taken on a new level of importance in the last month as more people want to learn about black history and culture.

The Black Archives of Mid-America
A flier for one of Kansas City's early Juneteenth festivals is preserved at the Black Archives of Mid-America.

In recent years, Black Kansas Citians have celebrated Juneteenth with festivals, parades, and barbecues. Peterson said this social aspect has been difficult to navigate this year given the concerns over group gatherings during the COVID-19 crisis.

“It's definitely been a learning curve, but at the moment we saw things shutting down and we just knew it would be more responsible to promote social distancing and shift to a virtual celebration,” said Peterson.

For the last few months, Peterson says the organization has been focusing on improving their website and thinking of ways they can still engage the community online.

The annual festival at the 18th & Vine Jazz District was canceled and instead replaced by digital educational events, live-streamed performances and virtual workshops spanning the entire month of June.

This weekend will feature a panel discussion June 20 on the Netflix documentary “Who Killed Malcolm X?” with directors Rachel Dretzin and Phil Bertelsen and local film critic Shawn Edwards. Edwards will also lead a discussion later that day called “Protesting Thru The Arts With Shawn Edwards.”

The Nelson-Atkins Museum held a live show earlier this month hosted by the local DJ Joe and DJ Ice Kole with local performers like Charlotte Fletcher, Glenn North, Amber Underwood, George Pettigrew, Julian Vaughn and more.

Churches across the metro also plan to gather for a silent prayer along 10 miles on the east side of Troost for the injustices faced by African Americans across the city.

“The real goal of our celebration has always been to tell the story and do it in a social aspect enjoyable by children and the entire family. By having that social connection, it causes a positive connection to your community and to your neighborhood,” said Peterson.

A highlight of the month for Peterson has been the recognition of Juneteenth as an official holiday by Jackson County Executive Frank White.

“It's something that should be nationally recognized and has been in the works for a while to make that happen. Hopefully, that'll be the next step,” said Peterson.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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