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Kansas City celebrates Juneteenth: 'Our freedom is finally getting acknowledged'

A crowd of people walk down 18th street, lined with vendors, during the Juneteenth Heritage Festival.
Savannah Hawley
KCUR 89.3
Vendors lined 18th street during Kansas City's Juneteenth Heritage Festival.

The recognition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday brought more people to Kansas City's festival this year. Attendees and organizers hope the celebration of Black culture continues to grow.

Gospel music, DJ battles, spoken word poetry and music on multiple stages blasted throughout the JuneteenthKC Heritage Festival in Kansas City's Historic 18th and Vine district on Saturday. Attendees visited vendors and a car show and danced in the streets to celebrate freedom and Black culture.

The festival was brought to Kansas City in 1980 by Horace M Peterson III, the founder of the Black Archives of Mid-America, but this year is the first time the weekend festivities were marked by a federal holiday.

Juneteenth celebrates the history and culture of African Americans in the U.S. and remembers the end of chattel slavery. The holiday began when, on June 19, 1865, federal troops in Gavelston, Texas, brought the news that enslaved people were free — two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

The federal recognition meant a lot to Grace Yasmeen, who’s been coming to the festival for 24 years to celebrate Black culture and freedom. This year, it felt different to her.

“It feels like finally this day that's our freedom is finally getting acknowledged,” Yasmeen said.

Grace Yasmeen (L) stands with her friend Julia Wendt at the Juneteenth Heritage Festival.
Savannah Hawley
KCUR 89.3
Grace Yasmeen (left) stands with her friend Julia Wendt at the Juneteenth Heritage Festival.

Yasmeen attended the festival with her friend Julia Wendt, who is white. Wendt, who is the officer of early learning for Kansas City Public Schools, said she felt honored to attend and support her friends. Earlier in the day, Wendt attended the free pre-K program at KCPS and the homeownership summit to promote equity in home buying.

Yasmeen said homeownership is just the first step in a list of changes that Kansas City needs to make to truly be equitable.

“(We need) more access to opportunities, access to affordable housing, expanded opportunities for different programming with long-term commitments to funding for those programs, health awareness, more events,” Yasmeen said.

Rochelle Slaughter, a local author of six children’s books, said the festival, and Kansas City, have changed for the better overall. Slaughter and her mother, Theresa Slaughter, were selling her books at the event. She said seeing the crowd brought to life the representation she writes in her books.

“I like the people being gathered together. There are activities for children, there's something for the whole family and it's just one way to bring the community together,” Slaughter said. “I think that's what it's all about.”

Representation is also a big deal to Jeff Harris, who created a clothing line focused on Black love. He said he’s been attending Juneteenth festivals since he was young, and now he’s adding to the event. The growing festival gives him a chance to spread the love: his bestsellers are the Black Love and Love Black Men T-shirts.

“It's definitely a whole lot bigger,” Harris said of this year's festival. “Way back in the day, they used to have a Juneteenth festival at Parade Park and it was nothing like this. But now, it's a whole community and everything. It's a nice thing to have.”

Simeon Taylor stands with his partner Yolanda and their twin daughters, Aurora (L) and Autumn (R).
Savannah Hawley
KCUR 89.3
Simeon Taylor and his partner Yolanda brought their twin daughters, Aurora (left) and Autumn (right).

Simeon Taylor, who goes by his stage name Simmy and the Jets, was a guest host at the festival. He hopes the growth of the festival brings more people to 18th and Vine for similar events.

“This is a historic place where music was created and where a lot of Black history started,” Taylor said. “So to have Juneteenth here in Kansas City is great because it reminds people where we're from, that we can get together and then celebrate.”

Taylor attended the event with his partner, Yolanda, and their children, two of whom participated in the first annual Miss JuneteenthKC Pageant a month prior.

While the family has attended the festival many times before, Yolanda said the federal recognition of the holiday and subsequent growth of the festival makes it better.

“It’s everything. It's our heritage. It's from where we come from to where we're going. It's good to have the camaraderie with our peers and new friends that we've never met before,” Yolanda said. “To be with your people on a great occasion and not something that’s somber or brings you together because there's some type of tragedy is always a plus.”

Juneteenth celebrations continue Sunday with various events throughout the city:

June 19: 

BLK + BRWN, a Black-owned bookstore, celebrates its first anniversary with a block party from noon to 5 p.m. at 104 ½ West 39th St.

The Major Taylor Bicycling Club rides 19 miles to celebrate Juneteenth. At several stops along the way, those who ride along will learn about the history of emancipation in Kansas City.

The National WWI Museum and Memorial is running an exhibition called “Black Citizenship in the age of Jim Crow” through September 18. The exhibit touchs on the struggle for full citizenship for Black people between the Civil War and WWI.

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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