.A Jubilant Juneteenth

This year was the 33rd installment

This week, we celebrate Juneteenth, the nation’s youngest federal holiday. Officially observed on June 19, Santa Cruz and other communities held their festivities last weekend. The holiday commemorates the day in 1865 when the Emancipation Proclamation was enforced through all the southern states, effectively ending slavery after the Civil War.

Over almost two centuries, Juneteenth spread throughout the country and added new traditions, but what it signifies to the Black community has remained the core of this day: Freedom.

Santa Cruz’s iteration began 33 years ago when Raymond Evans, the assistant director of the then-Louden Nelson Center, founded it locally. Originally from Texas, where the first celebrations of Juneteenth were born, Evans was amazed that people barely knew about the holiday in this coastal enclave.

This year, organizers say that the celebration is the biggest in its three-decade run. Ana Elizabeth, who’s company, Sure Thing Productions, has been putting the event on for the last 25 years, says it’s a wonderful thing.

“Overall, I think it was our best Juneteenth ever. Think we had our biggest crowd we’ve ever had. And it really was just, it was a beautiful, beautiful day,” Elizabeth said in a phone interview. 

Juneteenth 2024 was held at the London Nelson Center ( more on the name change later) and Laurel Park on a sweltering, summery Saturday. It’s been held at this location since its inception. The vibes were high as hundreds of revelers sprawled across the green grass, dancing to the live music acts performing on an outdoor stage.

Local artist Mak Nova was a standout, pumping up the crowd with their smooth Hip Hop and R&B set. Donning stylish sunglasses and flowing braids, Nova and her band added to the jubilant atmosphere.

A potato sack race between artist sets added to the playfulness, as ecstatic children jumped, tumbled and fell laughing over the grass in the middle of the park. Inside the center, local artists showcased vibrant pieces made of cloth that reflected African diaspora culture.

Oh, and the food.

Delicious barbecue was being plated up by members of Word of Life Church, while free hot dogs and a mole food truck rounded out the selections.

The event was dotted with informational booths for local organizations, including the Santa Cruz County branch of the NAACP. Local luminary and NAACP Santa Cruz Chapter President Elaine Johson said that her organization wants to make sure this celebration keeps going.

“This is a day of freedom, but the freedom doesn’t stop today. We have to keep the needle moving forward; healing and celebrating and loving one another,” Johnson said.

“I keep telling people, it’s so important to understand that it’s so important to understand what Juneteenth meant — and means — so that when people continue to go out throughout their day-to-day, they honestly know why they’re off [ on June 19],” Johnson added.

Although Juneteenth dates back almost two hundred years, it was not made a federal holiday until 2021, and the country as a whole is just now beginning to grasp the importance it holds for the Black community.

“In years past, when we’ve done Juneteenth, people didn’t know what Juneteenth was. But this year, it really felt like people were there because it was Juneteenth, not just because it was a free festival,” said Elizabeth.

Santa Cruz’s Black population currently hovers just over the 1% mark. In a county where over half the population is white and another third is Latino, organized celebrations of Black culture like Juneteenth have been historically few and far between.

However, for over a century, the legacy of Santa Cruz’s little-known Black pioneers had been literally buried underground, until a D.C, native took on the task of reclaiming that past. And it all started on Juneteenth.

Luna Highjoy-Bey had just moved to Santa Cruz when she was invited to speak at the Juneteenth 2020 event at what was formerly the Louden Nelson Center. It was then that she was informed of the hidden history of the center and its namesake

“They were like, ‘Do you know that Louden Nelson’s real name is London Nelson? Do you know he was a Black man?’” Highjohn-Bey recalled in an earlier interview.

After diving into historical records, Highjohn-Bey discovered that the bodies of Nelson and other, unnamed Black pioneers of Santa Cruz were buried together in Evergreen Cemetery. She took it upon herself to form a committee to not only identify the nameless buried, but also correct the name of the center. 

Later that year, the London Nelson Center got a proper renaming.

At this year’s Juneteenth celebration, Donnie Veal was there to help create community for people that often feel disconnected from the greater Santa Cruz.

“Juneteenth means, to me, reconnecting with culture. So this is an opportunity for me to reconnect with my culture and my identity,” Veal said.

Veal was there tabling for Rising Scholars, a program he founded at Cabrillo College that helps formerly incarcerated individuals get into higher education and experience a support system.

He said it’s all about freedom.

“We’re selling freedom with education out there.”


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