National Recording Artists Ashanti and Ro James Headline Juneteenth Music Festival
On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed a preliminary executive order that would free slaves from rebellious confederate states and enable them to enlist in the Union Army.
The order was officially issued on January 1, 1863, three years into the bloodiest war this nation has ever seen. The new state of Texas, established in 1845, was not a battleground state and was thus excluded from the proclamation, prompting droves of slaveowners to take refuge in the isolated western territory to protect their right to slave ownership.
On June 19, 1865, two months after General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War’s final Battle of Appomattox Court House, led by General Gordon Granger, two-thousand Union Army soldiers occupied the city of Galveston, Texas after an expansive trek across the southern states. Granger publicly recited the contents of “General Order No. 3,” announcing the immediate emancipation of Texas’ slave population, which had surged to more than 250,000 within two years. Newly freed slaves took to the streets, celebrating the status that would be solidified by Texas Supreme Court decisions between 1868 and 1874. The celebration, dubbed “Juneteenth,” was a momentous occasion, filled with excitement, relief, and uncertainty about the days ahead.
Between 1865, when the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, and 1868, more than 500 former slaves were brutally murdered in the state of Texas by hostile whites who opposed the idea of equality and would rather see Blacks dead than free. In response to increasing violence in the unstable south, the federal government established the Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency that assisted former slaves in the transition to freedom during the Reconstruction Era. In an effort to boost morale and continue the celebration of freedom, the agency helped organize the first official Juneteenth celebration in 1867.
Juneteenth is celebrated each year in mid-June in cities across the United States and around the world to commemorate the abolition of slavery and give credence to the interminable spirit of African slaves and their descendants, who have faced crushing oppression in this country for more than 400 years. Today, Juneteenth is recognized as a state holiday in every state, with the exception of Hawaii, Montana, New Hampshire, South Dakota, and North Dakota. In Colorado, recognition of Juneteenth was initiated by Otha P. Rice, a Texas native who launched the first celebration in 1953 at “Rice’s Tap Room and Oven” in Denver’s historically Black Five Points neighborhood.
In 2011, the organization of the Juneteenth event was assumed by longtime Five Points resident, Norman Harris III, whose family has been thoroughly entrenched in the Five Points community for generations. Harris, who has seen the transition of the neighborhood over the last 25 years, is working to bring a new energy to the event. His efforts are paying off, with this year’s two-day music festival on Saturday, June 15 and Sunday, June 16 expected to be the biggest yet, and he is urging Colorado’s Black community to get involved in the celebration and the fight for our legacy of strength, determination, and perseverance.
Five Points, known as the “Harlem of the West,” gained notoriety as Denver’s predominantly Black community when discriminatory lending practices kept Black families from living in other neighborhoods around the city. The community was a thriving business district that housed dozens of bars and clubs where Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Nat King Cole, and other jazz legends performed, making it the perfect location for the first Juneteenth celebration, and for the 64 annual celebrations that have followed.
Throughout the years, several community leaders have been tasked with the organization of Denver’s Juneteenth, which was once regarded as the largest in the country, but with changing demographics amid turbulent social landscapes, the event was on life support when Harris began the process of revival. As he works to re-establish Denver’s Juneteenth celebration as the premiere Black festival celebration in the country, Harris is fighting to preserve the legacy of Juneteenth while keeping the spirit of Five Points alive.
In the 154 years since the end of slavery, the Black community has undergone a series of shameful impediments, including mass incarceration, suppressive poverty, and inequities in the housing, educational, and economic sectors. Over time, these obstacles have contributed to the broad disbursement and destabilization of Black communities in cities across the United States. Within the last 40 years, the gentrification of historically Black communities has produced yet another barrier to the community’s advancement, a phenomenon that has struck our own beloved city especially hard.
Gentrification occurs when people leave deteriorated neighborhoods in search of better housing and educational opportunities, resulting in plummeting property values. Developers quickly acquire the remaining properties at rock-bottom prices, restore them to appeal to a more affluent population, and the original inhabitants are subsequently driven out due to increased prices. Combined with the illegal practice of redlining, the systematic refusal of funding for homes in impoverished communities, gentrification makes it virtually impossible for original residents to remain in the neighborhoods they have historically inhabited.
The historic cultural district of Five Points now hosts a population of more than 77 percent white residents, and Harris is among a group of community leaders who are fighting to preserve the cultural value of the community. “It feels like we’ve got this defeated spirit, like we come from nothing. Our grandparents and great-grandparents worked hard and saved to pass some of these properties down to our generation, and somewhere along the line we’ve forgotten those values,” Harris says, “Everything that I’m doing in Five Points comes from a place of being an underdog. I’ve got a chip on my shoulder; everyday I’ve got something to prove and a legacy to fight for. That’s how I started organizing Juneteenth. We took the opportunity and invested our time and money into it.”
Harris’ vision for the Juneteenth Music Festival mimics the empowering and all-encompassing mega Essence Festival in New Orleans; with seminars and city events that support the traditional festival setup and contribute to the advancement of the community. This year, health and beauty symposiums, day parties, and gaming tournaments will add entertainment and education to the music festival, which will be headlined by Grammy Award-winning R&B recording artist and song writer Ashanti and singer songwriter Ro James.
The festival will kick off with the annual Juneteenth parade, which begins at Manual High School. The lineup of performers will include local and national talents including Kayla Ray with DJ Squizzy Taylor, Trev Rich, AP, L. Keys, BH 2 Dots, and Doobie Newton, Dotsero, Soul School, Hot Lunch, DJ KTone and Friends with Dream is Grind, Jay Triiiple, Chyreco, Mandy Groves, Napalm, and many more.
“We need community and corporate support,” says Harris, who is working overtime to make sure this year’s Juneteenth Music Festival goes down without a hitch. “We need advocacy; we need people to share information. We’re still grassroots, so we need people to volunteer. And, we need people to donate.” Food will be plentiful and attendees should be prepared to peruse the merchandise offered by local vendors. The best part – admission is totally free!
Five Points is in the midst of a major transformation, and Harris is optimistic that Juneteenth will be a catalyst for the community to get excited about the development of Five Point landmarks, the Rossonian Hotel and the Five Points Plaza, which represent the storied past and the bright future of the historic neighborhood. “We have a legacy to protect,” he says, with hopes that the community will rise to the occasion and come out in droves and take pride in supporting a celebration of history. “In order for us to take back what we’re really owed on Five Points, we need to have a higher level of unity. I want Juneteenth, along with the other community festivals we’re producing, to literally be one of the anchors for culture and life that’s happening in the neighborhood.”
Juneteenth is an event that recognizes how far we’ve come while reminding us that there are no limits to how far we can go, together. .
Editor’s note: For more information, call 720-505-3274, email email@example.com or visit www.juneteenthmusicfestival.com.