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The Voice of Juneteenth

Similar to all other festivals, this year’s Juneteenth will be a virtual experience. But more importantly than an in-person gathering is an opportunity to amplify the conversation at hand. As we have readily seen, the issue of race relations is ever-present, which is why the 2020 Juneteenth Festival is more important than ever.

Traditionally, the Juneteenth Festival, held in MLK Park, is primarily attended by black members of the community. While a virtual undertaking might not be ideal, it should be considered an opportunity to open the conversation to a city-wide audience.

When we think of the East Side, it’s hard not to think of squandered opportunities. Those opportunities revolve around family, education, economics, health, history, and even architecture. To that end, I recently learned that Preservation Buffalo Niagara (PBN) has been helping to promote this year’s Juneteenth Festival by bringing the experience to new audiences.

“We’ve had a presence at Juneteenth for the last four years,” said PBN’s Executive Director, Jessie Fisher. “This year we are supporting virtually, as the African American experience is a critical piece of cultural history. That’s why we have had a Juneteenth social media takeover, hoping that we can teach people about a history that is too often dominated by white culture – what we learn and what we read. It’s important to tell the full story, by breaking out of the narrative of rich white men. Juneteenth commemorates the abolition of slavery and the resulting emancipation.” 

The Black Lives Matter-centered community conversation is not only spreading, it’s evolving. While Juneteenth is a great opportunity to discuss and highlight issues, it’s imperative that we see action, not just bandy about sympathetic talk. “We must listen to black voices,” said Fisher. “The entire community should also support black owned businesses, by making them part of daily routines.”

Ongoing actions and conversations must also revolve around infrastructure that has divided this city into far-removed neighborhoods – especially the East and West Sides. One of the biggest issues at hand is the presence of the Kensington Expressway (The 33). Until these dividing lines known as The Scar are removed or sufficiently downgraded, this city will remain divided. But thanks to proactive groups such as, we are finally seeing some real action, instead of idle words.

“At the same time, The Skyway removal is getting a bigger push presently,” said Fisher. “It’s prioritizing tourists’ views over the wellbeing of city residents. The Skyway process is being fast-tracked, while the 33 is still killing residents living in surrounding neighborhoods. This is an equity issue – tourists over people – it’s unacceptable.”

Fisher is right. The 33 conversation is much more imperative than The Skyway, yet The Skyway is getting more traction than the Kensington and Scajaquada Expressways. Why? We’re not only talking about a city divide, we’re talking about restoring critical parkways laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux – these squandered assets are intertwined. By restoring the Kensington Expressway, we would not only see urban neighborhoods reunited, we would also see equity (in matters of access and value) partially restored, maybe not to the tune that the original injustice imparted, but it’s a good start.

Hopefully the virtual 2020 Juneteenth Festival will not only open these long shuttered doors, but also open more minds to the opportunities and the possibilities at hand.

Stay tuned to pertinent messages and Juneteenth advancements online by following:

The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy now offers a self-guided mobile audio tour of MLK Park:

#blackhistorymatters @ Martin Luther King, Jr. Park Buffalo

Following is more information on the history of Juneteenth, by Dan Regan:

Juneteenth festival that takes place here in Buffalo is the 3rd largest in the world.  The official date, June 19th, marks the day when the slaves were emancipated from Slavery in 1865. Historical note, President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation came two years prior, but June 19th, 1865 is marked as the day Union troops finally arrived in Texas to enforce slave emancipation nationwide.  Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of emancipation dating all the way back to the original 1865 date   

In Buffalo, Juneteenth began as a weekend long festival along Jefferson Avenue in the 70s. It was a celebration of African culture and Heritage, but most importantly it was an expose of the thriving African American commercial district. There was a time, when Jefferson was the center of commerce and culture for the black community. A thriving commercial district that ranged from restaurants, bars, grocers, boutiques, and bookstores. During the festival, the street would erupt with vendors selling food and goods from an array of ethnicities, highlighting Juneteenth in Buffalo grew rapidly from its inaugural celebration until it expanded out onto MLK park where it currently resides today. 

Now any drive down Jefferson today will bear witness to the remains of this once thriving district. Succumbing to a litany of  poor urban planning, red lining, and other racist systematic practices and developments, Jefferson is far from the mecca it once was. Juneteenth however stands as a testimony to the vibrancy and resiliency of the community that has remained. 

Written by queenseyes


Newell Nussbaumer is 'queenseyes' - Eyes of the Queen City and Founder of Buffalo Rising. Co-founder Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts. Co-founder Powder Keg Festival that built the world's largest ice maze (Guinness Book of World Records). Instigator behind Emerald Beach at the Erie Basin Marina. Co-created Flurrious! winter festival. Co-creator of Rusty Chain Beer. Instigator behind Saturday Artisan Market (SAM) at Canalside, Buffalo Porchfest, and Paint vs. Paint. Founder of The Peddler retro and vintage market on Elmwood. Instigator behind Liberty Hound @ Canalside. Throws The Witches Ball at Statler City, the Hertel Alley Street Art Festival, and The Flutterby Festival.

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