Battle Creek will be 'Celebrating the Diversity of African Cultures' on Juneteenth

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

Ongoing concerns about COVID-19 have put a pause on an in-person Juneteenth celebration in Battle Creek for the second consecutive year, but organizers are finding ways to create an event that will educate, entertain, and energize the community, says Lynn Ward Gray, Treasurer for the Juneteenth Family Day Celebration Committee.

In previous years, the city’s celebration of Juneteenth has included a softball game and movie night at Claude Evans Park on the first day of the two-day observance followed by family-friendly activities and a motorcade parade during day two. 

Under the theme “Celebrating the Diversity of African Cultures,” the motorcade will continue this year with the lineup beginning at 2:30 p.m. at Lakeview Square Mall parking lot in front of the former JC Penney store next to Barnes and Noble for a 3 p.m. kickoff. Residents are encouraged to make signs and hold them up along the route as participants go by.

New to this year’s Juneteenth festivities is a virtual concert by Battle Creek jazz fusion ensemble Minor Element on Saturday, June 19, at 7 p.m.

Gray says the Juneteenth Committee was approached earlier this year by representatives with the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival headquartered in Kalamazoo. 

“The Gilmore was reaching out to say they wanted to align with whatever we wanted to do,” Gray says. “Our committee said, ‘Let’s do a partnership.'” 

The free hour-long concert will be streamed live by Kalamazoo's Public Media Network from the Judy K. Jolliffe Theatre inside the Epic Center in downtown Kalamazoo and will be accessible to everyone online through The Gilmore website, Facebook page, and the Gilmore Education Department YouTube channel.

“We are excited to be included in the Battle Creek Juneteenth Family Day Celebration this year,” says Leslie Baron, Education and Community Engagement Manager. “Hosting an event with the support of our partners in the community is a great way to bring more people together and raise awareness about Juneteenth.” 

In addition to the Minor Element Concert, Battle Creek's Juneteenth Family Day Celebration is also collaborating with community partners to create fun and educational offerings for area families including a Juneteenth children’s puppet show created by the Battle Creek Community Foundation to be televised on social media and television and a video contest through the Willard Library.

The puppet show will be available for viewing beginning at noon on June 18 on the BCCF Facebook page.

Submissions to the video contest, which is sponsored by Kellogg Community College, will be accepted until June 11 at 5 p.m. from local students in grades 3 through 12.

A member of Minor Element in rehearsal. The group will present a virtual concert as part of Battle Creek's Juneteenth Celebration.“The video contest gives our young people the ability to express themselves through song, music, the spoken word, poetry or any creative outlet they want to use,” Gray says. “It’s an opportunity for them to reflect on what’s happened over the last 18 months. We want these young people to learn about Juneteenth and share their experiences through artistic expression. This is part of a movement of awareness.”

The video submissions will premier from noon to 2 p.m. on June 19 on the Juneteenth Facebook page followed by the announcement and airing of the winning entries. Gray says the video contest replaces written submissions focused on Juneteenth that had been done in previous years celebrations.

“We thought doing a video contest would be better received,” she says.

The Roots of Juneteenth Locally and Nationally

Juneteenth began on June 19th, 1865 in Galveston, Texas, to celebrate and commemorate African American Freedom and the ending of slavery in the United States of America. 

Battle’s Creek Juneteenth celebrations began in 2003, initiated through the Battle Creek Senior Branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) under the leadership of then-president, Roberta Cribbs. In 2005, the State of Michigan proclaimed the 3rd Saturday in June, as Juneteenth National Freedom Day in Michigan, thereby designating Juneteenth as a State Holiday.

In 2009, the Battle Creek Juneteenth Celebration Committee and the Southwestern Michigan Urban League announced a combined event for the first time.

“We have continued that collaboration to this day. In 2009 and today, it’s clear that pooling the resources of both organizations to provide a greater opportunity for community support and involvement strengthens all of us,” Gray says. 

Because so much of Juneteenth is about educating those who are not familiar with the history, Gray says the Black14 philanthropic movement will figure prominently in this year’s celebration. The group has a local connection through Gray’s cousin Tony McGee, a former standout football player at Battle Creek Central High School.

McGee, who went on to play collegiate football at the University of Wyoming, was among 14 members of the 1969 University of Wyoming football team who were kicked off the team after they asked to protest a policy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The University of Wyoming was scheduled to play against Brigham Young University, which is owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the day before that game -- Oct. 17, 1969 -- Wyoming’s head coach Lloyd Eaton dismissed the 14 players when they appeared at his office as a group wearing black armbands on their civilian clothes. The players were protesting the LDS policy then in force that barred black men from the priesthood.

The group later became known as The Black 14 and they recently formed a philanthropic organization which goes by the same name.

Gray says Black14 T-shirts and face masks will be given to all who participate in the motorcade, participants in the video contest and their families, and those who get vaccinated at a drive-thru clinic that will be held in the KCC parking lot where the motorcade parade will end.

Woven throughout events during the two-day celebration, such as the proposed clinic, the concert and the video contest, is the overriding message about Juneteenth, Gray says. Her husband, Sam, is the committee chairperson.

“My husband has been going around doing Juneteenth education for quite some time,” she says. “We’ve been recognizing it in Battle Creek since 2003 and we do that every year because we never want to forget what our American history is and we never want to repeat the atrocities of slavery in our country. We want to recognize everyone’s humanity and that’s what Juneteenth symbolizes, a recognition of freedom and for people to be able to be their true selves and have their humanity recognized. It’s a coming together of all cultures and a pledge to recognize all humanity.”

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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh 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.