Oliver Taylor finds it difficult to believe that he did not grow up learning about the significance of Juneteenth in school.
Juneteenth commemorates the day when the last enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, learned they were free on June 19, 1865 — more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which outlawed slavery within U.S. territories.
It wasn’t until Taylor, who is Black, took an African studies class in college that he learned of that part of history, he said.
On Saturday, the southeastern San Diego resident paid homage to the landmark moment at Ski Beach, where dozens of families sat under colorful canopies cooking burgers on portable grills and mingled by the water.
The gathering was one of the many Juneteenth celebrations on San Diego beaches, neighborhood BBQs and parks this year, taking on the special significance of being able to mark the day as a federal holiday for the first time.
Many who have organized annual celebrations in San Diego for decades to educate people on the significance of Juneteenth, as well as to celebrate culture and community, rejoiced the U.S. government’s decision — made just days ago — to recognize June 19th as the country’s 12th federal holiday.
“Sometimes our history is disturbing, but we have to acknowledge that to heal,” said Sidney Cooper Jr., whose family organizes the annual Cooper Family Foundation Juneteenth celebration in Logan Heights.
Now that Juneteenth is a federal holiday, it increases the opportunity to educate more people about its significance in American history, said Cooper.
“The more we learn about each other’s culture and communities, the more healing that can take place,” he said.
The Cooper Family Foundation has organized the event for decades. On Saturday hundreds of people walked around Memorial Park and sat on lawn chairs to listen the performers.
There were at least 30 vendors selling clothing, artwork and more. There were also informational booths on health and employment resources, a COVID-19 testing site and a blood pressure reading booth. People happily tucked into free barbecue, a traditional meal for the celebration.
Volunteers with the foundation created a history exhibit at the park with information about Juneteenth and other notable events. There were photos of civil rights leaders, victims of police brutality and the Cooper family.
Sidney Cooper Sr., a business owner in southeastern San Diego, had a passion for celebrating and giving back to the community on Juneteenth. He started the celebration as a small family gathering until it grew into a block party with hundreds of attendees.
The Juneteenth festival traditionally happens along Imperial Avenue in Logan Heights, but this year organizers decided to host the event at Memorial Park once it became too late to secure permits for the block party due to the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
Shelley Cooper, the eldest daughter, said her father, who passed away in 2001, would be proud that Juneteenth was recognized as a federal holiday because its something he believed was a longtime coming.
“He would be so happy … he would probably be saying, ‘I told you so,’” she said.
Meanwhile at Ski Beach on Mission Bay, hundreds of families met to celebrate with music, food and vendors. The event was organized on social media — not only in honor of the new holiday, but also a celebration of San Diego, since June 19 is also known as 619 Day.
Ashley Hill, a small business owner from southeastern San Diego, said it was significant for Juneteenth to be recognized as a national holiday because it feels as if “we are a step closer to equality,” Hill said.
After a year that brought social justice issues to the forefront with the death of George Floyd, community members saw an opportunity to promote unity and community with the 619 and Juneteenth Celebration, said Taylor.
The event was held for the first time last year, and organizers hope to repeat it for years to come.
Several artists with Artists 4 Black Lives San Diego gathered in Balboa Park’s Pepper Grove Park to celebrate the holiday with performance art.
And more than 200 cyclists rode from Mission Bay to Chicano Park and finally to National City to raise the Juneteenth flag at City Hall.