Juneteenth Parade

Lafayette Steele of El Campo, seen here in 2018, rides his horse “Lil’ Quick” during the Wharton County Freedom Festival parade to celebrate Juneteenth at Willie Bell Park in El Campo.  A festival is also planned today in Willie Bell Park starting at 4 p.m.

The summer sun is beating down like a typical Texas June day, even though the coronavirus pandemic has made the last few months far from normal. In spite of the mark COVID-19 has left on the world, some locals are finding ways to safely honor Juneteenth this year.

For about a decade, a Juneteenth festival has been held in Wharton, organized by the James Simmons Jr. Juneteenth committee. The festival sometimes drew about 10,000 locals annually for the music, food and children’s activities.

The traditional Wharton festival was canceled this year, unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to former Juneteenth committee member Audrey Haller. Instead, a smaller festival is planned for El Campo today.

Juneteenth “has been celebrated for many years either the weekend before or after June 19th,” Kisha La Shay said on the Leader-News Facebook page. “Social distancing will occur as the location of celebration is largely spacious.”

Some locals will be working on Juneteenth, which fell on Friday this year, while others are opting to celebrate at home in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m looking forward to celebrating Juneteenth,” El Campo city council member Gloria Harris said. “Even if it’s in my backyard.”

“I truly admire them for wanting to celebrate,” Haller said. “This is me for my sake: I don’t feel comfortable leaving or going out (right now) … I applaud what they are doing.”

A Texas holiday, Juneteenth celebrates the day Texas slaves learned they had been freed by then President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Federal troops traveled to Galveston after the Civil War ended to share the news, arriving June 19, 1865.

“Juneteenth is about a movement,” Haller said. “It is a day of celebration celebrating our freedom as black Americans. Some people get angry. Some people rejoice. I choose to rejoice.”

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25 sparked controversial national protests against police brutality across the U.S. in recent weeks. Some protests have remained peaceful while others have devolved into riots and looting. The protests have gained national attention for the Black Lives Matter movement and Juneteenth celebrations, and U.S. senators proposed a bill to make Juneteenth a national holiday Friday.

El Campo Black Lives Matter protesters chose to peacefully demonstrate on June 1. El Campo BLM protestor Shavonna Shorter, mother of a five-year-old son and two-year-old daughter, has discussed the protests and Juneteenth with her children.

“It’s important and my duty to educate and ensure that my son, family and community understand the inequalities and disparities that Africans American face based off the color of their skin,” Shorter said.

Protests for Floyd spread outside the U.S. to the United Kingdom and a few international cities.

“I’m not for small towns doing the George Floyd protests because it’s more than George Floyd, but it did draw a lot of attention,” Harris said. “Continue to protest, but above all remember to vote. If you don’t have a voter’s registration you aren’t going to change anything.”

Some locals plan to celebrate Juneteenth today, Saturday, with food, music and more at Willie Bell Park.

“Come out and join the fun,” Nicole Johnson said on Leader-News’ Facebook page. “We will be bringing the ice cream truck by for some cool treats!”

The Juneteenth celebration will be held at 4 p.m. Saturday, June 20 at Willie Bell Park, 720 W. Second.

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