In early May, the organizers of the Berkeley Juneteenth Festival — which was set to happen this coming Sunday — made the difficult decision to call off the hugely popular event amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. KQED reported Thursday that the annual gathering has been reimagined as an “online commemoration,” including daily posts on the Juneteenth Facebook page to spark conversations and reflection.
Last year, Berkeleyside contributor Aaron Welch wanted to find out how the Berkeley Juneteenth Festival, which began in 1986, came to be. The event, which celebrates the abolition of slavery in the United States, is believed to be one of the longest running Juneteenth celebrations in Northern California. This year, Juneteenth falls on Friday, June 19.
This week, Delores Nochi Cooper, who has organized the Berkeley Juneteenth Festival for 33 years, told KQED she has planned this year’s Juneteenth “as a virtual event entitled ‘No Justice, No Emancipation.'” It will “take the form of ‘an online commentary with writings from writers and artists about the pandemic, civil unrest and the current status of Black lives.'” Learn more on the Juneteenth Facebook page.
Today, to commemorate the occasion, Berkeleyside is republishing Welch’s interview with Cooper. The interview has been updated and lightly edited for republication.
What is the history of Juneteenth?
Juneteenth started in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865. It was the final execution of the Emancipation Proclamation. When the formerly enslaved folks in Galveston heard they were finally free (more than two years after President Lincoln issued the executive order), they flooded the streets and rejoiced.
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.
How did the first Berkeley Juneteenth event come together?
About 30 years ago, the Adeline-Alcatraz Merchants Association was organized to promote small businesses in South Berkeley. They started Juneteenth to highlight the Adeline Corridor and to promote community pride and cooperation. We celebrated our first annual Juneteenth festival in 1986. In 1987, the nonprofit (Berkeley Juneteenth Cultural Celebrations) was established.
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. 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.
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. South Berkeley is where African Americans migrated from the South 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 the Japanese people who lived in that area before. So it’s quite a history.
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.