Carol Bluitt, an Antioch resident and a mother of three young sons ages 7, 9 and 10 years old, watched them play Frisbee in the grass while she sat in a picnic chair under a tree on Sunday at Williamson Ranch Park.
Bluitt, wearing a Minnie Mouse hat and listening to live DJ music on the warm and breezy afternoon, was one of many enjoying the Juneteenth celebration at the park.
The park was transformed on Sunday into what felt like a small-sized, one-day local fair that welcomed families from Antioch and beyond to enjoy live music, food, drinks, rides, face painting and more.
The city of Antioch and Oakland-based nonprofit Makin Moves Motorcycle Club organized the Juneteenth/Father’s Day community event.
“This is a free event. All we care about is that you come in with a positive attitude, have a good time here and leave with a full stomach,” said Kevin Lamb of Makin Moves.
The event brought in visitors not just from Antioch but also from Oakland and San Francisco.
“It’s nice to be hanging out here with my family — my mother, stepfather, son and daughter,” said Lacora Benard, an Oakland resident. “We are just hanging out and getting some sun. It is really nice that they are having this free event with the food and games.”
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Juneteenth, observed every year on June 19, is a holiday originating in Texas, where it is also known as Emancipation Day. On June 19, 1865, Union general Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce the freedom of the enslaved African Americans in the state, shortly after the end of the U.S. Civil War and two years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
“I always talk to my children about what their responsibility is,” said Carol Bluitt, talking about what she does for Juneteenth every year. “I teach them that they are important. I let them know that people died so that you live this life that you are living today. We always have to be grateful and think about our forefathers and thank God for them.”
For Bluitt’s family, as with many African American families, it is a tradition to gather for Juneteenth and spend the day together.
“Back home, we have celebrated it every year, in Chicago. We have been celebrating it since the ’60s,” said 96-year-old Merle Wilson, an Antioch resident of eight years. “It’s a state holiday and a city holiday back home. But I am 96 now so I don’t have to worry about taking time off from work. I go to events everywhere now.”
President Joe Biden signed a bill establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday last year, meaning federal workers get a paid holiday and no mail is delivered. But other U.S. workers don’t necessarily enjoy this benefit. According to Pew Research Center, at least 24 states and the District of Colombia have legally recognized Juneteenth as a public holiday at the state level this year. But California is still yet to join the list of states to recognize this day as a paid holiday.
“I think it is important to celebrate ourselves even if the community don’t,” Bluitt said. “We have to celebrate ourselves. And what I do is I get with my family — my sisters, my nieces and nephews — and we thank God.
“We thank God for people who put all the work in — who died so that we can be free and sit in this park today, and just look around and see all my Black folks, and the good music and the good food, and just thank God for our lives, and we are able to have fun today and celebrate African American people.”
The 96-year-old Wilson had a few words to share about what freedom in America meant to him. He said, “Freedom means to do anything that I want to do within reason. Not to step on nobody else’s toes or to let them step on mine.”
Harika Maddala is a photojournalist based in Stockton covering San Joaquin County for Bay City News Foundation and its nonprofit news site Local News Matters. They are a Report for America corps member and a CatchLight Local Fellow.