Juneteenth celebrations expand in Northland
Duluth, Superior and Grand Rapids will all host events on the weekend of what's now a official federal holiday.
DULUTH — "The slaves already knew they were free," said Henry L. Banks, standing on Minnesota Power Plaza, also known as the People's Plaza, at a June 6 news conference. "It was the slave owners who had not gotten to that point of recognition and acknowledgment."
On June 19, 1865, Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger proclaimed freedom for people enslaved in Texas, the last remaining state with institutional slavery in the former Confederacy. Today, the anniversary of that proclamation is celebrated as Juneteenth — officially declared a federal holiday one year ago this month.
"It's key that folks understand what happened in Galveston, Texas, and it's important that we recognize it," said Carl Crawford, human rights officer for the city of Duluth. In addition to the educational aspects of Juneteenth, Crawford said, the celebration is part of a tradition of communal gatherings.
"It's important to understand the history of the family reunion, especially for the African heritage community," continued Crawford. "It was meant to find loved ones, folks that they never even knew existed. And we're still finding each other 'til this day."
On Friday, Crawford will read an official Juneteenth proclamation on behalf of the city. It will mark the kickoff for a full weekend of Juneteenth celebrations across the Northland — including events in Duluth, Superior and Grand Rapids.
The "Duluth and Superior African American community is actually one community in two separate states. It's only a bridge that separates us," said ChaQuana McEntyre, an organizer of the Twin Ports Juneteenth celebration taking place in Superior on Saturday. "This year, we have the opportunity to combine all of our events, show solidarity, as well as support one another throughout the week."
Seraphia Gravelle is among the organizers of a Juneteenth celebration happening Sunday in Grand Rapids under the auspices of organizations including VEMA (Voices for Ethnic and Multicultural Awareness) and KOOTASCA Community Action. Chisholm hosted last year's event — "the very first one on the Iron Range," Gravelle said.
"It was a wonderful experience," said Gravelle about last year's event. "I think it was really great for, especially, the people of color in these communities to see that they're finally being celebrated in the communities that they live in."
The longest-standing local event marking the anniversary is the annual Juneteenth Jubilee hosted by the NAACP Duluth. The celebration, a fixture of Duluth's summer calendar for decades, will take place Sunday at the Central Hillside Community Center.
"The NAACP Duluth is one of the largest membership organizations of the NAACP in the state of Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, with over 1,400 members," said Banks. "What I've noticed is our allies, who are particularly, in this case, white, have come together in solidarity with the NAACP to support the mission and the purpose of that organization. That says a lot about Duluth."
Banks said that community members of all backgrounds are welcomed to Juneteenth celebrations and should feel encouraged to attend. "When we have a meal together," he said, "just a group of people — Black, white, Asian, Native heritage — we're all sitting together and we're having a meal together. It says, we really are a family."
Four days prior to Juneteenth each year, Duluth marks the remembrance of a wrenching episode of racist violence: the June 15, 1920, lynching of three Black men. Duluth's Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, completed in 2003, was the country's first large-scale memorial to lynching victims.
A new Nordic Center exhibit about the development of the memorial opens Friday to coincide with Juneteenth. Carla Stetson, the artist who designed the memorial in collaboration with writer Anthony Peyton Porter, is traveling to Duluth from her current home in Ithaca, New York, to be present for the opening.
Stetson hopes the exhibit will illuminate what "a real community process" it was to conceive, fund, design and install the memorial. "There was a sense of unity around the creation of the memorial, on the part of so many organizations and people," she said.
The artist, who was living in Duluth at the time of the memorial's creation, said that she and Porter have stayed in touch and have been gratified to see the space being used as a site for community gatherings — including during the demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd's murder in Minneapolis in 2020, one century after the Duluth lynchings.
"Our memorial was being used for what we intended it to be used for," Stetson said. "More than just a statue or anything like that, it's a space where people come together."
Given the simple fact of geographic distance, said McEntyre, the expansion of Juneteenth events is helping to ensure that such celebrations are accessible to as many Northlanders as possible.
Twin Ports Juneteenth, organized by McEntyre's nonprofit Family Rise Together in partnership with the Family Freedom Center and Superior African Heritage Community, is taking place on Barker's Island "because there's families that are impoverished that can't get over to Duluth," McEntyre said. "The reality is, we can't get everybody in one place. So if we can support everything that's going on ... we're all for it."
In addition to food, entertainment and children's activities, the Juneteenth celebrations offer an opportunity to spotlight local Black-owned businesses. "That's something that's really important," said Gravelle, "because there's a lot of things that have not been available to folks up here (on the Iron Range), such as hair products and ethnic foods."
Deyona Kirk will be tabling at the Twin Ports Juneteenth event, both on behalf of her professional services and her nonprofit organization.
"I'm a bookkeeper for small businesses and nonprofits," she said after the news conference. "There might be other businesses that need my bookkeeping services at an affordable rate, so I'm excited about that on my business entrepreneurship side."
Kirk added that she's also "excited to connect with young BIPOC mothers that may also need some services that are provided through my nonprofit, Divine Konnections."
The event will be an important opportunity for Kirk, she said, since she's only recently returned to the area after time spent living in Texas. "I want to be sure the right people know about the services we're providing," she said. "Twin Ports Juneteenth is going to give me an opportunity to make sure that they know we're here, ready to serve."
The Juneteenth celebrations fall on the same weekend as one of Duluth's biggest annual draws: Grandma's Marathon. Crawford sees that as a plus. "We have a great opportunity," he said. "There's going to be people from all over the world in our community ... and some folks would really enjoy being a part of a cultural event as well as taking part in the other events that they came up for."
After Friday's proclamation, Duluth City Hall is hosting an Honor Our Elders luncheon. Crawford said he's "really excited just to recognize some of the elders in our community ... that helped keep the story of Juneteenth going long before it was seen as a federal holiday. There's lots of people that kept the narrative, the knowledge, and that celebration alive and well in our community, and we're going to list some of those folks and just recognize their hard work."
"This is one of those celebrations that brings us together," said Banks about Juneteenth generally. "I can guarantee you, every day of the week, somebody is going through something in their lives. And when we come together, we at least get an opportunity to remove that pain, and have a celebration, and honor each other."
Specifically, added Banks, Juneteenth is a time to "honor the contributions, in this case, of the African heritage community, and African heritage people who have made this country what it actually is today."
Following is a selected list of Northland events this week related to Juneteenth and, additionally, the remembrance of Duluth's lynching victims.
Wednesday, June 15
Day of Remembrance program at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, corner of East First Street and North Second Avenue East, Duluth, noon. See claytonjacksonmcghie.org.
Service of remembrance for Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie at First Lutheran Church, 1100 E. Superior St., Duluth, 7 p.m. See facebook.com/flcduluth.
Thursday, June 16
"Shift: Family, Origins, Identity and Belonging," a virtual conversation with Karen F. Nance, author of "The Duluth Lynching — A Family Perspective," 7-8 p.m. See nordiccenterduluth.org.
Friday, June 17
Juneteenth proclamation and Honor Our Elders luncheon at City Hall, 411 W. First St., Duluth, 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. See duluthchamber.com.
"Making the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial" opening reception at the Nordic Center, 23 N. Lake Ave., Duluth, 5-7 p.m. after a 4-5 p.m. gathering at the memorial. See nordiccenterduluth.org.
Saturday, June 18
Twin Ports Juneteenth at Barker's Island, 250 Marina Drive, Superior, 1-6 p.m. See twinportsjuneteenth.com.
Sunday, June 19
St. Mark's Gospel Brunch at Hillside Sports Court, Fourth Avenue East and Eighth Street, Duluth, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. See duluthchamber.com.
Juneteenth celebration at the KAXE Rotary Tent, 260 Northeast Second Street, Grand Rapids, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. See kootasca.org.
NAACP Juneteenth Jubilee at Central Hillside Community Center, 12 E. Fourth St., Duluth, 1-6 p.m. See facebook.com/duluthnaacp.
This story was updated at 11:20 a.m. June 13 to correct the time of the City of Duluth Juneteenth proclamation. It was originally posted at 8:00 a.m. June 13. The News Tribune regrets the error.