Northern California’s longest running Juneteenth Festival returns Sunday

The Berkeley Juneteenth Festival in 2018. Photo: Nancy Rubin

The Lorin District in South Berkeley, the traditional center of the city’s African American community, will again play host to the Berkeley Juneteenth Festival this weekend. The festivities, which celebrate the day that the last former slaves learned of President Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, June 18, and continue into the evening.

Held annually since 1986, save once in 2008, Berkeley’s festival is the longest running Juneteenth in Northern California.

Activities and entertainment planned for the 2019 festival include a main stage featuring jazz, gospel, R&B and other musical performances; a smaller stage featuring spoken word, dance and other miscellaneous performances; historical exhibits; health screenings, courtesy of Alameda County health agencies; and a kid zone, featuring interactive activities with an educational spin. Admission to the festival is free.

Delores Cooper is one of the founding members of Berkeley Juneteenth, having helped organize the first festival more than 30 years ago. She currently serves as event coordinator for the festival, as well as secretary and treasurer for Berkeley Juneteenth Cultural Celebrations, the associated nonprofit organization.


The costs of organizing the festival are funded in equal parts by vendor fees, corporate donations and the city of Berkeley, Cooper said, and between 4,000 and 5,000 people typically attend Berkeley Juneteenth each year.

Berkeleyside touched based with Cooper, to talk about the origins of Juneteenth, the history of the festival and the African American community in Berkeley, and the organizers’ plans for this year. (Comments have been edited for brevity.)

What is the history of Juneteenth?

“The history of Juneteenth started in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865. It was the final execution of the Emancipation Proclamation. When the former enslaved folks in Galveston heard that they were finally free (more than two years after President Lincoln issued the executive order), they flooded in the streets and they rejoiced and they started a celebration.

This celebration has become a tradition for African American communities in the South, as well as for African Americans who migrated to other parts of the United States. The tradition of Juneteenth has gone with them since June 19, 1865.”

Music at a previous Juneteenth Festival in South Berkeley. Photo: Tracey Taylor

How did the first Berkeley Juneteenth come together?

“About 30 years ago, the Adeline-Alcatraz Merchants Association organized to promote small businesses in South Berkeley. They started Juneteenth to highlight the Adeline Corridor and to promote community pride and community cooperation. We celebrated our first annual Juneteenth festival in 1986. In 1987, the nonprofit (Berkeley Juneteenth Cultural Celebrations) was established. So we (the founders) say we’ve been 32 years in existence.”

You mentioned the first Berkeley Juneteenth was held in 1986. How has the festival evolved since that time?

“Juneteenth is a cultural event, kind of like Chinese New Year or Cinco de Mayo, where we celebrate our diversity and it unifies us as a community when we come to celebrate. But it’s also come to mean other things. The opportunity to celebrate the music, the culture and the traditions (of African Americans), has given us the opportunity to expand (Juneteenth) by allowing us to highlight the contributions that African Americans have made to the fabric of America as a whole. So it has evolved in that we want to educate and involve the community at large in our history, and welcome the community to come and participate along with us.

The other transition that we’ve gone through is that we offer economic opportunities through our vending, which has grown. We have about 150 African American vendors, who primarily feature ethnic wares.”

Juneteenth Festival in 2018. Photo by Nancy Rubin

What’s the significance of holding the event along the Adeline Corridor in South Berkeley?

“Martin Luther King Jr. Way was a kind of Mason-Dixon line (for Berkeley), and most of the activity and the residence that occurred in the black community was in South Berkeley. It was the center of African American jobs, businesses, etc. in the 1950s and ’60s. The South Berkeley area is where African-Americans migrated from the South to Berkeley to work in the shipyards, etc. in Richmond.

Also, at the time that the Japanese were interned and lost their homes in South Berkeley, some of those homes were taken over by blacks. So that was the first opportunity that black people had to own property in Berkeley, but it was at the expense of Japanese that lived in that area before. So it’s quite a history in South Berkeley.”

How does that cultural legacy live on today? Do you see it when you’re in South Berkeley?

“No, South Berkeley has changed tremendously. African Americans are down to about 8% of the Berkeley population. (Census figures show that in 1970, African Americans represented 23.5% of the Berkeley population.) Our population has dwindled down, certainly in South Berkeley. A lot of folks, after their parents passed away, sold their properties and moved to other parts of the Bay Area, like Oakland, where the rent was cheaper.”

What is the role of the festival in the community today? What does it mean to the city and its residents?

“In our 33 years of existence, our consistent theme has been celebrating the African American experience and using the organization as a vehicle to demonstrate that the community is a part of — and not outside of — the society’s mainstream. We do this by featuring and celebrating our culture and our music, and by providing new and upcoming talent with the opportunity to perform professionally.

A lot of people don’t know it, but H.E.R. (the R&B musical artist) performed on our stage as an 11-year-old. Fast forward 10 years, she’s now a Grammy Award-winning singer. We really take that seriously. I think it’s really important to provide an avenue for up-and-coming talent to perform professionally on a stage like ours.

Another part of our tradition is celebrating and acknowledging the black history-makers in South Berkeley, like William Byron Rumford (the first African American elected to a state public office in Northern California), Henry Ramsey Jr. (a lawyer and Alameda County Superior Court judge who advocated on behalf of African American communities), Frances Albrier (a civil rights activist who became the first African American woman to be hired at Richmond Shipyard No. 2, among other achievements), and Mable Howard (who organized the community against BART’s original plan to run above ground in South Berkeley, which would have divided the predominantly African American neighborhood from the rest of the city). All those individuals have historical markers that identify them as history-makers in South Berkeley in the 1950s and 60s.

We utilize local black visual artists in the creation of all of our images. Those images are displayed around the community, including our banners on the festival corridor between Alcatraz Avenue and Woolsey Street, which were created by a local South Berkeley artist by the name of Mildred Howard.

We acknowledge that our community has indeed come a mighty long way and therein lies our strength. We also acknowledge that there’s a continual fight for equal justice under the law, and we support that and hope that our program emphasizes that with our themes, what we talk about on the stage, and (through) the other organizations that (Berkeley Juneteenth Cultural Celebrations) is involved with.

I think it’s really important that we invite the community at large. We want other groups to feel welcome to come and acknowledge and celebrate along with us, and celebrate us for one day — and we call it Juneteenth Day.”

BBQ at a previous Juneteenth Festival. Photo: Tracey Taylor

What can people expect from this year’s festival?

“Our theme this year is Are You Ready? The theme (is intended) to just tell people to come and join with us and celebrate along with us.

From 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., local churches will be coming on stage to do some gospel performances. We have some STEM folks that are coming to do science activities with the kids. We have a science educator; we have a person that owns their own STEM consulting firm. We have a woman that’s doing some hands-on art. We have some Jamaican stilt walkers. And we have a double slide combo (bounce house).

We hope that the kid zone is more than a place to play. We want kids to learn something, so we have folks doing some interactive things with the kids, like (an activity exploring) physics and basketball, and teaching them about oceanography.

On our main stage, we have (vocalist) Derek Hughes, featuring some local folks like Sonny Fairley — some people who were former musicians in the Larry Graham Band (of Sly and the Family Stone fame). We have a young man by the name of Mike Marshall (a Berkeley-born R&B singer featured on the song “I Got 5 on It,” which played a prominent role in the film “Us”), Jackie Gage (a jazz and pop artist who grew up in San Jose, California), and Samba Funk, which is Carnaval-type act. (Carnaval is a Caribbean, Central and South American tradition, associated in the United States primarily with Mardi Gras.) And we have the Berkeley Black Ecumenical Ministerial Alliance (a coalition of African American ministers representing various Christian denominations).

We feel like we have a really good schedule of events this year, so we’re really excited about the attendance and the day.”

What would you say to someone who’s never attended Juneteenth?

“I think they should attend to just come and have a good time, and enjoy the music and the food because that’s what people mainly do when they come to a festival. They just want to come and have fun. But at the same time, they will learn something through our historical exhibits. They can have a health screening. And they can look at a lot of great art and crafts.”

The Berkeley Juneteenth Festival will be held Sunday, June 16, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., along the Alcatraz-Adeline Corridor in South Berkeley. Parking in the area is limited; Juneteenth organizers recommend that those who are able take BART to Ashby Station, from which the festival is a short walk south on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Admission is free, as are all performances.