At 10 a.m., when the earliest Juneteenth festival goers were getting ready for a short walk and run, Vincent Jamerson was readying his charcoal smoker. One of the first vendors to see near the corner of Union Avenue and S. Dunlap Street, Jamerson, 58, has made a no-frills ritual of grilling, a past time begun when he was young and starting fires for his mom’s smoker in North Memphis.
Under the company name “Lick the Bone,” Jamerson lives in Cordova and can usually be found selling “whatever people like” — ribs, chicken, shoulder, smoked sausages — along Germantown Parkway and will be at the Southern Heritage Classic in September.
As the smell of barbecue wafted from Jamerson’s set-up, so did tunes of his favorite musicians, among them Sam Cooke and Bobby “Blue” Bland. It was Jamerson’s first time grilling at a Juneteenth festival, as it was the first time for Memphis’ Juneteenth festival to take place in the Health Sciences Park. The Juneteenth Urban Music Festival has historically been held at Robert R. Church Park downtown, and at Douglass Park before that.
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Although the park’s plaza area closest to Union Avenue was still gated during the two-day festivities, the remains of Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife were removed from the area earlier this month. The remains of the infamous Confederate general, slave trader, and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, will be reassembled in Columbia, Tennessee at the National Confederate Museum at Elm Springs along with his statue, removed from the park in late 2017.
Perhaps symbolic to some, the timing of the exhumation, just in time for Juneteenth, was coincidental, said Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner, who also runs the Memphis Greenspace nonprofit that has had ownership of the park since the statue was removed.
“We wanted this process to be respectful, to be something that healed divisions,” Turner said during a recent press conference, describing a similarly “full circle” moment of having a Juneteenth celebration on the heels of the exhumation, a celebration of emancipation at a park that once did not allow Black people and has recently symbolized Memphis’ divisions.
Since the exhumation, Juneteenth became a federal holiday commemorating June 19, 1865, the date when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas were officially told they had been freed by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier. The holiday gained more recognition during last summer’s racial reckoning as thousands protested the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and injustices Black Americans face.
Some are at odds with declaration of the federal holiday, recognized at a time when many states, including Tennessee, have attempted to halt school discussions of the long-lasting effects of slavery and systemic racism through bans of critical race theory.
Connita Hill sells T-shirts under her business SistaStyle, with the most popular ones showing African proverbs, commemorating Black history, like Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, and others with lighthearted, funny sayings.
At the front of Hill’s booth, she framed a history of Juneteenth, a detailed addition to the festival’s outdoor museum with a timeline of events that walks through the beginning of slavery in America to the day’s Juneteenth Festival. Though her shirt business is about a year old, she’s been making them for a while, often making combination birthday-Juneteenth shirts for her oldest grandson, who turned 15 this June 19.
She learned more about Juneteenth as an adult, eager to share history with her kids and grandkids. A few years ago, she preached about Juneteenth to her own congregation.
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“I figure we got to start somewhere, and even if this is a minor step for some — which to me, it’s a major step,” Hill said of the federal holiday recognition. “If this is a minor step to some, all steps, all successes, start in minor steps, one at a time. We got this, now let’s work on the rest.”
More recently, Hill has been learning about her family’s history, tracing lineage on her side of the family to her great-great grandmother, whose grandfather’s land was in part purchased and in part taken, next becoming the Mississippi University for Women in Columbus, Mississippi.
“(I’ve been) tracing back to my great-great-great grandparents, and making sure my grandchildren know them,” Hill said. “Even to the point where from time-to-time I will make them repeat the names of the people. It means nothing to them now, but later on when they start having children, it’s going to be a big deal.”
Some of the festival’s Saturday vendors were young kids — Leniya Kimbrough, 12, was selling shirts and drinking glasses in the holiday’s signature black, yellow, red and green, and Ilana Kai Flynn, 7, was with her mom selling clothes for “Kai’s World Kloset.”
Ilana Kai’s favorite items included press-on nails, a fidget-spinner type toy, hair bows and miniature backpacks, all among several other children’s clothes.
“I actually have more people that help (with my store),” she said. “My god momma, so shout out to my god momma, shout out to my granny and shout out to my mom.”
The idea for Kai’s World Kloset started last July, and “it’s hard work,” she said.
“I was seeing everybody else have all their shops,” Ilana Kai said, “and I was like, ‘I’m bored. I want a shop. We have to start selling stuff.'”
USA Today contributed reporting.
Laura Testino covers education and children’s issues for the Commercial Appeal. Reach her at email@example.com or 901-512-3763. Find her on Twitter: @LDTestino