Battle Creek's Juneteenth Celebration will be on the road this year

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

Engines will be revving as the city’s annual Juneteenth Celebration proceeds with caution.

Organizers of this year’s event decided not to go ahead with activities and events that have been offered during past Juneteenth celebrations which have traditionally happened on the Friday and Saturday closest to June 19, the date for which the observance is named. This year’s event coincides with Friday, June 19.

“Because of the stay-at-home orders we thought we would do Juneteenth differently this year,” says L.E. Johnson, who is chairing a motorcade that will be the main event for this year’s observance. “For the sake of our community and because there are so many unknowns with the virus we want to take the proper precautions to be alive and well for next year’s Juneteenth celebration.”

The Juneteenth Motorcade will begin at 3 p.m. on Saturday at the Lakeview Square Mall and follow a route that will end at Kellogg Community College. Johnson says he expects more than 25 vehicles to be in the motorcade.

Among those participating will be members of the We All We Got motorcycle club which includes people from Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, and Detroit.

Meia Burton, a Battle Creek resident and member of We All We Got, says they ride as a group once or twice a month and her club members also raise money for various causes including those dealing with cancer. They also participate in food drives around the holidays to benefit the Salvation Army and support the Musashi Basketball League, a summer basketball program for young people in Battle Creek.

During last year’s Juneteenth event, the bike group had a booth where they sold items like popcorn and slushies. They also handed out free Kool-Aid juice packs and water to children attending a movie night in Claude Evans Park.

“Since we won’t be able to have a booth, we’ll be riding in the Juneteenth motorcade,” Burton says.

They also will be decorating a trailer that members of the basketball league will be on. The basketball players and bike members will pass out water and little prizes along the motorcade route.

Juneteenth event organizers settled on the motorcade, which is hosted by the Southwestern Michigan Urban League, after seeing people doing drive-by birthday parties and graduation celebrations to honor graduating seniors.

Participants in the Motorcade are encouraged to decorate their vehicles and dress in authentic African or African American attire. People also may participate by staying home, creating signs, and dressing in authentic attire to salute and celebrate the passing motorcade. The motorcade route can be found on the Facebook page of the Southwest Michigan Urban League.

“We thought that this was something we could engage in while still committing to social distancing standards to celebrate a significant date in the history and culture of our people,” Johnson says.

Juneteenth marks the day on June 19, 1865, when Union Army troops landed in Galveston, Texas, and announced that the Civil War was over and all slaves had been freed. It is believed to be the last area in America where people learned of the Emancipation Proclamation — which became official Jan. 1, 1863 — signed by President Abraham Lincoln.

Burton says events such as the one in Battle Creek emphasize the significance of this day for African Americans. Juneteenth, she says, is important and must continue despite the pandemic because it is a remembrance of what her ancestors went through and gives generations that have followed the opportunity to recognize the hardships they endured and the sacrifices they made.

“A lot of people don’t even know why we have Juneteenth. It’s the day the slaves were released and a lot of kids aren’t educated about it,” she says. “I’m glad they didn’t want to cancel it totally because it’s something we need to do, especially because there’s so much going on around us right now. This will be good.”

But, the struggle has not ended for the descendants of African Americans, especially those who were born or sold into slavery. A Racial Healing Circle, billed as the “World’s Largest”, hosted by the Urban League and the Battle Creek Coalition for Truth Racial Healing and Transformation will begin at 8:46 a.m. Saturday at C.W. Post Stadium. 

Johnson says that start time represents the time that was recorded that the officer had his knee on George Floyd’s neck which “we know to be the main contributor to his death.”

That police officer is facing second-degree murder charges in Floyd’s death.

The Healing Circle will begin with 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence to honor Floyd.

Johnson says this period of silence will “ground ourselves in his memory” in addition to focusing on the disconnect between the work that needs to be done and the absence of a deep connection to an event or a source to make it more real.

“Our honoring of his life is to say this is why we’re here and this police brutality and inequity and racial disparity is representative of several events and several hundred years of history and culture that exists in our city,” Johnson says. “We may not be able to articulate it, but we experience it.

“This gives us a direct connection to something that is present and real and recent and really centers us into a reflection of ‘what is going on around me locally that I have unintentionally ignored. Who in my community has been impacted by this source of events and how can we come together in deep reflection and different ways and means of interacting with one another.”

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.