Raised in the Deep South, no one ever told Kathy Mills-Brantley that — two months after the Civil War ended — it was the declaration of a Union general that finally ended slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865.
Some Black communities have been celebrating Juneteenth since the late 1800s. Akron was holding its second annual day of parades and festivals when Mills-Brantley moved there 22 years ago. She had to ask “what all the hoopla was about.”
“I had never realized the depth of this. And now I’m educating family back in Georgia,” she said.
Mills-Brantley and fellow Akron Public Schools teacher Wanda Johnson, a Buchtel alum, sat together in lawn chairs Sunday wearing matching Juneteenth T-shirts. As a drum line led the Buchtel High School football team and cheerleaders into view, the Black women threw their arms into the air, cheering proudly from the devil strip along Copley Road.
Akron’s Juneteenth community celebration returned stronger than ever Sunday to the heart of West Akron. Trimmed by the pandemic to a small gathering of about 50 people in 2020 and 100 last year, about 300 people paraded from Buchtel High School to Hawkins Avenue in a proud procession of Black children, adults, students, business owners and politicians followed by a cavalcade of 18 Corvettes that filled the air with the sounds of R&B, funk and soul music.
At Stoner Street, they gathered with hundreds more to mingle, dance, play, eat and shop under canopy tents set up by local Black-owned businesses. Fela Sutton with Akron Black Coalition, a group that formed after the death of George Floyd in 2020, organized the festival at Stoner-Hawkins Park.
Sutton, 35, has attended the local Juneteenth festival for the past 21 years, she said. But it wasn’t until 2020, as she and other activists sought out community as a way to heal and move forward in their renewed march for social justice, that she got involved with organizing the event.
She met the late Gerald R. Carter, who launched the annual Juneteenth celebration in Akron 24 years ago. Carter also organized the “Collard Green Cook-off" and brought the African United Front to the city. A WAKR TV camera operator, he attended Buchtel and learned to preach at the other end of Copley Avenue under the tutelage of pastor Mary L. Stone at Stone Deliverance Evangelical Temple.
Sutton knew Carter briefly. He died in September 2020.
“And in those few months, he taught me how to run Juneteenth,” Sutton said. “And he told me what it was all about. It's not supposed to be a solemn day. It’s not supposed to be an all-out free-for-all celebration. It's supposed to be a community observance, a way for us to give back to the community and help us talk together about issues in the community.”
Along with remembering Carter, this year focused on family and inspiring youth “to find a better way,” she said.
'God almighty, free at last'
For at least 20 of the past 24 years, the festival has begun, as it did Sunday, with a drum circle performance led by Kwame Williams.
“We call it a big family when the community comes together,” Williams said, telling the other drummers to “find your rhythm” as he stepped away to talk with a reporter.
Williams, 71, and other organizers of the parade and festival embody community.
“Society heals if people come together,” said Williams, a former peewee football coach and youth mentor who tries to use “the family concept in everything I do.”
The celebration is about confronting old and new challenges for the Black community while celebrating success and supporting one another. Though slavery persisted in some northern states following the Civil War, and immediate progress for Blacks was soon met by Jim Crow and a century of racist laws that discriminated in everything from housing to education and voting, Juneteenth is about freedom together against all odds, attendees said Sunday.
“They didn’t know they were free for two years,” Shareefah Wahid, an organizer for the past 40 years with New Generation Youth Group, said of Blacks in Texas 160 years ago. Even though Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to free slaves in 1863, word of that edict did not reach Texas, a Confederate state, until after the Civil War ended in 1865. “That’s why we celebrate, Wahid said. “To let them know that our men and women are free.
“Free at last. Free at last. God almighty, free at last,” the 71-year-old lifelong Akron resident said. As she barked out an order, her group of children lifted their pan-African-colored flags high at the front of the parade.
Wahid knew Carter, who she called a "good man." She’s been involved in the parade since Carter started it all in Akron nearly a quarter-century ago, she said.
Behind her in a princess dress, Diana Autry’s 4-year-old granddaughter turned onto Hawkins Avenue in a little motorized carriage, which looked like something out of a Disney movie, though it needed some pushing to keep up with the high school football players and cheerleaders ahead of them.
“We’ve been searching for our identities since we’ve been here,” Autry said of her people. “We were more than slaves. So, to explain more about our culture, I’m glad to be a part of this.”
Autry, a school board member in Akron, learned about Juneteenth as a child while in Arizona visiting her father, a retired Vietnam veteran who died in 2020. She glad to see the event come back strong in Akron.
But despite the increase in Juneteenth events across the country and the declaration by President Joe Biden last year making it a national holiday, observance isn’t universal, she said.
And “all awareness is good,” she added.
Autry marched with others in the Buchtel PTA, who organized a jazz quartet at Stoner-Hawkins to celebrate dads on Sunday, which also happened to be Father’s Day.
Toward the front of the parade, Mayor Dan Horrigan and his top Cabinet officials walked up to the crowd lining the street and handed out candy with a smile and a few kind words. Then the professional ladies of the Eta Delta Sigma Chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority marched, followed by 18 Corvettes with many of their tops down and, not holding up the rear, an Akron Little League baseball team.
At the park Lt. Michael Miller, the highest ranking Black police officer in Akron, where he serves as the liaison to the community, shifted the football he’d been throwing with children from under his right arm to his left so he could shake a man’s hand.
“Nice to meet you,” he said before returning with a smile to face the children.
Behind them, Malikah Williams set up a massage chair and laid out her homemade products, from essential hair oils to sugar scrubs and aroma therapy scents.
“It’s all organic,” she said of her business, A Queen’s Touch LLC. She said she’s been busy since opening her mobile massage business seven years ago.
On Sunday, the licensed therapist gave 10-minute massages for $10.
“I love what I do,” Williams said, talking about her course correction in college, where she started out to be a pharmacist then a physical therapist before she took the good advice of a counselor and landed on massage therapy.
More importantly, she said, she can stand tall as an entrepreneur supported by her community at an event designed to advance the entire Black community spiritually, physically and financially.
“It’s very empowering,” she said. “It’s very influential, especially seeing the younger girls say, ‘Hey, she’s a business owner. I can do that, too.’”
Reach reporter Doug Livingston at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3792.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Akron Juneteenth celebration, festival and parade makes strong comeback