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A sign at a previous Juneteenth Festival states the reason for the annual celebration. This year’s festivities will be held at John Lucas Park starting at noon on Saturday.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it was assumed that St. Joseph’s Juneteenth Festival would be canceled. Then a massive outpouring of support happened.

Fueled by a mixture of hot issues, like the deaths of black people, including George Floyd, Breeona Taylor and Rayshard Brooks, along with worldwide protests, Juneteenth president LaTonya Williams didn’t want the community to miss the chance to celebrate black unity and freedom.

“Because of the racial issues right now, it would be a good opportunity to educate and inform and to bring everybody together,” she said.

Turning what is normally a weekend-long event into a one-day picnic, Williams said St. Joseph Juneteenth will be smaller in the time allotted for people to gather, but bigger in scope and support. It will be held at John Lucas Park starting at noon on Saturday, June 20.

“I think that things are different this year because there are more people aware of the event and they’re more open to learning about it,” she said.

The event is held annually across the country to celebrate the freeing of slaves in Galveston, Texas, in 1865. Originally a Texas holiday, it is now celebrated nationwide. 

This year’s event will feature a lunch and talks with people in the area, as well face painting, DJ Jason Harker and several live music performances.

Because it is free and open to the public, Williams said it was a challenge to get it all going. Prior to last week, she wasn’t sure it would happen.

“(Last week), it was canceled. We had no money to do it (and) we’re working off of donations ... I just I got the idea to ask the community to help us and it has been in overwhelming response,” she said.

But the community in St. Joseph came through to make sure it did happen. When Williams started soliciting donations, she heard back from people of a variety of races and backgrounds.

“In past years, there were people of other races participating a little bit. This year, I’ve had the most amazing responses from people out of other races,” Williams said.

While the celebration is one of black freedom, prosperity and excellence, it’s also of people from other walks of life who are allies or wanting to know more about other cultures. It’s a necessary step that Williams sees, as she has seen the ignorance and misconceptions pour out about issues surrounding black culture pour out during this tumultuous time.

“When I look at the comments and everything online, I’m never mad or judgmental. I just look at it like people never do better until they know better, until they’re more educated,” she said.

Juneteenth is the perfect time for that to happen, Williams said, and organizers will be doing it safely with masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing being encouraged. While these precautions mean the usual Juneteenth events, like the parade, won’t happen this year, the feeling of community lives on stronger than ever. She said that should be celebrated.

“I think (the support) shows our community cares. Our community truly wants to come together and not ignore our differences, but to appreciate them instead,” she said.

Andrew Gaug can be reached at andrew.gaug@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NPNOWGaug