Berkeley Juneteenth Festival celebrates history, community

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Ryan Geller /Staff

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Sage, incense and the smell of barbecue drifted by on the breeze as lawn chairs collected around the stage at Alcatraz Avenue and Adeline Street for the 31st annual Berkeley Juneteenth Festival.

The event is Berkeley’s version of a celebration that now takes place across the country to mark the end of slavery in Texas, as well as in the United States generally. Upon his arrival in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger of the Union Army issued orders declaring that all slaves were free — almost three years after president Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

“The name ‘Juneteenth’ expresses that phenomenon that people did not know on an exact date when slavery ended,” said James Sweeney, one of the founders of the Berkeley Juneteenth Festival.

Berkeley Juneteenth Cultural Celebrations, the organization behind the event, prided itself on the mellow family atmosphere, local music, crafts and ethnic food. Bay Area music group SambaFunk! packed the stage with members of its Funkquarians band, a drum section or “bateria” featuring a rotating mix of skilled and energetic dancers and musicians.

Many of the dancers participate in classes at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts in Oakland, according to Erica Richardson, one of the members of the group. She added that performing these dances at the Juneteenth event has special significance because it demonstrates the freedom to express her culture, which includes worshipping spirits referred to as “orisha.”

“During slavery we were not allowed to worship our own deities,” Richardson said. “We had to hide our traditions.”

Delores Nochi Cooper, the secretary and treasurer of Berkeley Juneteenth Cultural Celebrations, said the Juneteenth event offers artisans and craftspeople an economic boost and is important to the community, but she was also concerned about finding people from the next generation to take on the responsibilities of organizing the event.

“We certainly need younger people — the original founders are getting older,” Cooper said. “In order for us to continue we need fresh blood.”

Orlando Williams was cited by some of the long-term contributors to the event as the next generation, or the “fresh blood” that Cooper refers to. Williams began his work with the organization by focusing on the “kids zone,” which has grown to encompass two blocks in the last four years.

According to Cooper, the event’s sponsors have added a zip line, planting and gardening activities, and a booth to introduce children to STEM fields.

“The support of others is one of the things that really makes this Afrocentric event so successful; there are Asians, Latinos, Caucasians, gay and lesbian people, people from the disabled community — people come here because they feel accepted,” said Gerald Baptiste, a longtime organizer of the event.

Contact Ryan Geller at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @rashadgeller.