The sun beat down and all over the park, pockets of people hoarded shade, sitting under the only trees nearby. Only a brave few milled around in the sunny park downtown.
It was much too hot on Saturday but Juneteenth was not to be missed.
“The important thing is we show people we’re still here,” said Taylor Saunders-Garrett, a Rochester resident in attendance. “We have a long ways to go but it’s something to unify the community and something good to do.” She said she didn’t even know what to expect but still knew she had to “get up and go” so she took her godchild, niece and nephew with her.
Attendants were able to enjoy live performances, visit tables with community information and play games with the City of Rochester’s Rec on the Move.
The festival took an especially celebratory tone this year, which many say is in response to the increasingly hostile political climate in America. In recent years, the number of hate crimes and acts of discrimination, including police shootings of unarmed (or rightfully armed in the case of Philando Castile) black Americans, has ticked up and and the recent election of Donald Trump only confirmed this hate for many Americans. Many at the festival said it was great to “escape for a day” and be around their community.
“It’s nice to have this and be able to enjoy each other’s company,” said Felisha Smith-Jones. She said she originally didn’t want to go to the festival but her friend, Tasha Cleary, made her. The teenagers were sitting on top of the remodeled Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, listening to music and people watching.
“There’s been a lot of violence and stuff in the community but this shows we can have something,” said Smith-Jones. “It’s mad teenagers here but we’re enjoying it too. So, it’s nice to be out here and yeah, it’s hot but it almost feels like one big family party. Like a reunion, you know you don’t want to go but then you do and you have fun.” She laughed.
“It’s funny to see how many people see someone, scream, and hug,” Cleary added. “Everyone says Rochester is small but this is one of the good times it is. I saw my old teacher from #22.”
The all-day festival drew out all kinds of people; some who didn’t know a thing about Juneteenth and some who intensely understood the value of the community event.
Ashley Campbell, Artistic Director and Co-Founder of Ballet Afrikana, had a table at the event and appreciated the day immensely. Her dance studio focuses on teaching young women the skills of dance but also imparts a knowledge of their history and self. She said the Juneteenth festival offered the chance for Rochester’s “melanated people to reconnect with the past and connect with each other” and a chance to start to rebuild the community and neighborly feel that has made up the backbone of Black America for centuries.
“We have to. Our greatest strategy is our collective energy… and not just saying it. It’s our number one thing to rely on,” she added.
Juneteenth occurs every year and celebrates the day Union soldiers arrived in Texas to announce the ending of slavery in the United States. Although slavery had been outlawed more than two years before, many were still slaves and it required the Union’s presence to ensure they were freed.
The local celebration has continued to grow in size and many attendants expressed hope that as more learned their history and “woke up” it’d only continue to grow.