Iowans celebrate Juneteenth with commemorations, art, music and Pride

Iowans were celebrating Juneteenth across the state in the days leading up to the federal holiday — taking stock of the importance of Black history and freedom.

The commemoration included events across the Des Moines metro on Saturday and Sunday, drawing thousands of attendees.

"It's something I've been doing since I've doing every year since I was really young. I'm bringing my kids now," said Iowan Johnneisha Long while attending a Juneteenth event in Des Moines. "To me it's something important to celebrate and to know our history and where we came from."

Iowa's history with Juneteenth

Juneteenth commemorates the freeing of slaves in Texas, in June 1865 — more than two years after the federal Emancipation Proclamation and well after the end of the Civil War.

This year marks the second year of Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

Iowa, like some other states, recognized Juneteenth as a holiday before then. In 2002, then-Gov. Tom Vilsack signed legislation designating the third Saturday of June as Juneteenth.

"In my opinion, Juneteenth is all about freedom and reclamation of bodily and emotional autonomy," said Jalesha Johnson, an organizer from Des Moines Black Liberation Movement, while attending the “Pride & Soul” event in Des Moines.

Neighbors Day in Downtown Des Moines

On Saturday, the area around downtown Des Moines' Western Gateway Park closed to celebrate Juneteenth with "Neighbors Day." The streets were filled with vendors and advocacy groups while performances were held on a nearby stage.

"Juneteenth means to me an opportunity to educate people about our past in America. Today, it gives us a chance to reach out to generations to talk about the shoulders we stand on and why it's important to celebrate," said state Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, a Des Moines Democrat. "If we don't, we will lose. We will lose the diversity — the meaning of it."

Nehemiah "Nemo" McDonald, 19, from Des Moines said the day means freedom, "but not only freedom."

"I would say it's something that should never be forgotten for not only the African American community, but all of our communities and a part of our history that should be talked about," McDonald said.

"I think it's a time to really get together with people that look like you and just being able to connect and spend time together," said Malique Miller, 23 from Des Moines.

xBk Live brings out Black entertainers

A section of 24th Street south of University Avenue was shut down over the weekend to make way for a handful of food vendors and entertainment at xBk Live, a performance venue in the Drake Neighborhood.

Musicians and comedians performed and there was a debut of a documentary from Iowa PBS called "Juneteenth: The Movement."

"Juneteenth to me, if I'm just going to boil it down to a couple words, comes down to Black excellence. It solidifies the start of the American Dream for Black people," said Perry Thompson, a comedian who performed at the event.

Thompson, 38, of West Des Moines, has been putting on Juneteenth showcases for the past five years in an effort to get local Black talent a space to perform and be heard.

xBk continued its Juneteenth celebration Sunday with Kalypso Music Festival from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m..

Iowa PBS' documentary debuted at xBk Live and explored Iowa musicians' understanding and experiences with Juneteenth.

Even among members of the Black community, the holiday wasn't always well known, according to artists at the screening.

"When did I first hear about Juneteenth? About 15 years ago... the city of Cedar Rapids was going to hold a Juneteenth Celebration and I was like 'Well okay, this is a thing that I knew about but I didn't know that anybody celebrated,'" said Kevin Burt, a American blues-rock musician based in Iowa.

"I think it might have been after I graduated from college, so maybe four or five years ago, is when I heard about Juneteenth," said ADE, a musician based in Iowa City.

In between interview segments, interviewees and Charlotte Blu, a contestant from Iowa in NBC's The Voice, performed.

Art, Pride and Juneteenth overlap, combine

This year Juneteenth fell during Des Moines' Art Week, leading to cross-pollination.

Saturday at the North Side Library, 3516 5th Ave., a community mural was slowly being created to celebrate the "joy of Juneteenth," as Iowa-based artist Jill Wells puts it. Wells served as a facilitator helping community members add their addition to the mural.

The mural was inspired by Jack Marren's "Flower Color Splash Flower," according to Wells.

Marren, 22, is a mentee of Wells through the Artists x Advocacy Mentorship Program.

"It feels like I finally gone big time as an artist. I have autism and an brain injury but I am not a broken person," said Marren. "Don't stop dreaming. Never stop daring yourself to dream."

Wells brought the in-progress mural to Western Gateway Park to take part in Neighbors Day Saturday afternoon to be finished before it is unveiled at the Valley Junction farmer's market in West Des Moines on June 23.

At Des Moines Water Works Park's Laurdisen Amphitheater, LGBTQ Pride and Juneteenth celebrations also combined Saturday.

The roller skating themed event was a chance to recognize that LGBTQ people are part of the Iowa’s Black community — and vice-versa, according to organizers.

LGBTQ and Black vendors, artists and resources lined the area as attendees skated through.

"Today we're putting on Pride and Soul, which to me is an intersection of my identity. It's celebrating being both queer and proud and Black and proud," said Jo Allen of the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, who organized the event.

Covered in Melanin

The intersection of those communities was on display again late Sunday night and early Monday morning at Blazing Saddles in Des Moines' East Village.

Seven drag performers, all Black, performed together in an event dubbed "Covered in Melanin."

The air crackled with excitement in the neon lit room as seven performers took the stage throughout the event as attendees rushed the stage to tip the drag queens through their routines.

Master of ceremonies Sharaya Diamond, 29, of Des Moines, kept the energy high throughout the event and shared an impassioned take on Juneteenth.

“Juneteenth means a lot of things to a lot of people. Juneteenth for me it's an opportunity to be Black as 'F', be Black and proud and lift your voice. Shout your voice. Be heard, be discovered be found and just be yourself. Be you and show that and spread it to the world,” said Diamond.

More xBk

Juneteenth returned to xBk Sunday at Kalypso Music Festival.

The event marked the first effort of Akyn, a recently formed collective that aims to create more avenues for Black artists in Iowa.

“The whole idea behind the festival, and to get it started, was that we want to create something for black youth within Des Moines and just the Iowa area in general and give them that space and cultural environment where they can showcase their music,” said Akyn co-founder aleb Nichols, 19, of Des Moines.

One of the 13 featured artists was musician Octavious Piercy-Maze, 19, of Estherville — who performs as Tav3.

Piercy-Maze, who is Black, said his understanding of Junenteenth has changed as he grew up and had personal encounters of racism.

“I originally learned about it when I was younger and everything before I had a full sense of the world. And I thought that was when we were done,” said Piercy-Maze.

"There still is racism. Now I am able to acknowledge it as a stepping stone,” he said of the holiday.

Staff Photographer Meg McLaughlin contributed to this report.

Omar Waheed is a reporter at the Des Moines Register. Omar can be contacted via or twitter at @omartwaheed.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Juneteenth celebrations in Iowa see commemorations, art, music Pride