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For several years, Juneteenth in Little Rock meant a big concert downtown at Riverfest Park hosted by Power 92-FM.
But what Juneteenth really celebrates — June 19, 1865, day that abolition of slavery was announced by federal troops to slaves in Galveston, Texas — was lost in all the live music.
To be sure, there's certainly nothing wrong with live music being a part of a larger holiday celebration. But for some critics, the annual gathering was all about the show. Two Little Rock filmmakers — Darrell Scott and Julian Walker — made a critical documentary about the concert in 2007.
Since 2009, however, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center has organized the city's primary Juneteenth celebration. Sure, there's live music and lots of other fun activities and it's a good time. But the primary focus of the event is on the meaning of the holiday and the critical importance of knowing the history of slavery and the plight of African Americans to gain freedom.
"We were approached with an opportunity from the community to partner with some other organizations to do a Juneteenth that was very community-focused and friendly and we felt that it was a good opportunity," said Quantia Fletcher, assistant director of the center. "Especially because our mission is to preserve, to interpret, to collect and to celebrate the history of African Americans in Arkansas, and what better way than with the history of Juneteenth, which is all about the celebration of freedom of African Americans?"
The festival started off with small steps, but the MTCC wants to expand, adding more days and different types of events to attract a wide swath of the community. The organizers are also looking for sponsors to help the festival grow.
"We want to expand by gaining major sponsors and major support from people in our state who really understand the importance of the Mosaic Templars' mission, which is African-American history in Arkansas, but who also are interested in helping us partner to make the festival bigger and better," she said. "We'd like to have more performers. We'd like to have performers on a larger scale. Everything that we offer on the day of is free. We'd like to continue to keep it free, but we really need sponsorship support."
This year, the Juneteenth celebration will include a theatrical performance Friday, June 14, all-day activities and music on Saturday, June 15, and a historical reenactment featuring an African-American Civil War regiment in full regalia on Thursday, June 20. Audiences will be able "to step back in time and hear the stories of what it was like to be a colored soldier or what it was like to be an African American around the time of slavery. What were they fighting for? What things were important to them? It's going to be interesting," Fletcher said.
The Friday performance is "Voices from the Front Porch," written by S. Juain Young. There will be two performances starting at 6 p.m.
"The purpose behind this theatrical performance is to take people back, for people to remember the struggle, for people to remember the importance of our ancestors and how they fought to obtain freedom and how their story is intertwined with ours," Fletcher said. "And there's a little bit of comedy in there as well, but basically, it's going back to our great-grandmothers, listening to the stories they remember hearing from their family members."
The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, at Broadway and Ninth, is the reconstruction of the Mosaic Templars building that housed black businesses and the Mosaic Templars fraternity. Its exhibits focus on Arkansas black entrepreneurship and the once-thriving black business district that existed on and around Ninth Street. "Juneteenth is an opportunity for us to open our doors to business and allow vendors to be at their very best and continue the legacy of entrepreneurship, as well as history and music," Fletcher said.
Even though the celebration stems out of the African-American experience, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center wants to reach everyone.
"It's definitely an opportunity for everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, to have a good time and to celebrate, but to also remember the importance of the date and also remember that we're all one community, and we can get so much more done if we collectively work together," Fletcher said.
All events are free.
11:45 a.m. — Gloryland Choir
1 p.m. — Akil Ato
1:30 p.m. — International Percussion Collection with Emerge
2 p.m. — Butterfly & Irie Soul
4:30 p.m. — Billy Jones Blues
6 p.m. — Stephen B. Steward
Headliner — Isaac Carree