Christian Farr interview Opal Lee.
Image from Heidi Randhava
Christian Farr interview Opal Lee. Image from Heidi Randhava

Evanston’s First Annual Juneteenth Parade, hosted by Evanston Present and Future at 6 p.m. on June 19, was a resounding success, with more than 3,000 views during the live-streamed event. Woven throughout the parade were tributes to Hecky Powell, the late civic leader, philanthropist and owner of Hecky’s Barbecue. Mr. Powell had long championed the celebration of Juneteenth.

Earlier this year, Evanston Present and Future founder Kemone Hendricks envisioned people coming together to march down the street in the City’s first Juneteenth parade. When the global pandemic made in-person gatherings unsafe, Ms. Henricks expanded her vision for the Juneteenth 2020 celebration, instead of cancelling the event.

“After Governor Pritzker said all in-person summer celebrations should be cancelled, I started to plan the transition to a virtual parade. That’s when I started to incorporate the ‘30 Days of Juneteenth,’… when I started to incorporate the planning of a car parade and different pop-up shops, in lieu of not being able to do an actual in-person parade,” Ms. Hendricks said in a conversation with the RoundTable on June 20.

As a member of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJOF), Ms. Hendricks is committed to raising awareness of the annual holiday. Juneteenth, also called Independence Day, commemorates the effective end of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, America’s remaining slaves in Galveston, Tex., were informed of their freedom. The notification came two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln.

Ms. Hendricks kept her commitment to organize a Juneteenth parade that raises awareness of the holiday and the history behind it. Those who took part in the event did so virtually, but together they affected real change. It was Evanston’s first and only Independence Day parade that celebrates the freedom of all Americans.

Like all great parades, music set the mood. At the starting line was Gilo Kwesi Logan and S.O.U.L. Creations playing Kassa, a West African rhythm traditionally played by drummers during the harvest season to support workers in the field and also for celebration.

Ms. Hendricks welcomed viewers, who watched from the safety and comfort of their homes, instead of from sidewalks and parkways along the street.

“I am so excited to see this come alive … You will see a lot of great performances – musical, dance and spoken word. And we have honored speakers. One of the main things that is a huge focus for tonight is the educational aspect of Juneteenth. … Tonight you will hear from different community members about what Juneteenth means to them and why they think we should celebrate it every single year. … I hope you enjoy and take away what it means to us as a community to celebrate Juneteenth,” said Ms. Hendricks.

The pride and spirit of Evanston’s Black community shines bright in the following highlights from the virtual parade route.

Dino Robinson, Founder and Executive Director of Shorefront Legacy Center

Mr. Robinson narrated a four-minute video, chockablock full of photos, maps and artifacts that highlight African American history from the 1850’s to the present day. An excerpt:

“Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. It is a day of celebration, a day filled with entertainment, recreation, reflection and self-improvement; a time where we recognize our elders and our youth. Juneteenth is the span of time it took for the announcement of the end of slavery to reach all who were enslaved.

“President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was issued on Jan. 1, 1863. The Civil War ended on May 9, 1865. And on June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Texas with General Order #3, which read in part, “The people of Texas are informed that all slaves are free.”

“Families migrated through the country … to Illinois and communities north of Chicago.

Before 1863, the Illinois Black Codes kept Blacks indentured. You could not be a free person of color in the state of Illinois, and slavery was allowed in southern Illinois.

“I think about those who arrived in Evanston during the Civil War: George Robinson, Nathan Branch, Andrew Scott … their struggles, life stories, tenacity and perseverance forged communities, and forged history as free people.

 “Early in our history on the North Shore, the community had fought Jim Crow and segregation and we persevered. … We established churches, and we served; we established Evanston Sanitarium Hospital, and we provided; we established Emerson Street YMCA, and we strengthened our community. …

“As Juneteenth celebrations continue to grow across this nation, the events that transpired in 1865 in Texas will not be forgotten. For our roots are imbedded in the soil from which our ancestors were placed on, worked on, built on; and we all should celebrate our accomplishments and honor our legacy of pride that is embodied through Juneteenth.”

Parade Grand Marshal – Alderman Robin Rue Simmons

Ald. Simmons, 5th Ward,  honored the late Hecky Powell for his lasting contributions  to the Evanston community.

“We must thank Hecky. For years, Hecky celebrated Juneteenth as a community, and prioritized awareness and education on this historic day with all of us in Evanston. It is because of Hecky, and his request last year at the (2019) Juneteenth celebration, that we have a Proclamation in the City of Evanston honoring Juneteenth. … So thank you to the Powell family for sharing Hecky with us. He is a giant and an icon, and he will never be forgotten,” said Ald. Rue Simmons.

The alderman reflected on the work that has yet to be done to achieve racial justice in America, and also the great progress that has been made.

“So this day, Juneteenth, is our day of Jubilee. We celebrate our strengths and our successes in the midst of centuries of continued discrimination and oppression here in America. With the recent murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and after centuries of Black lives lost due to racial terror, we are feeling only nominally free. And that’s why it’s so important right now that we take this moment and we celebrate as a community, and we continue on in our fight toward complete liberation, self-sufficiency and freedom.

“I’m proud to be an Evanstonian. I’m proud of our City for leaning into our pain and our unfortunate past, and passing reparations for Black residents in Evanston. We’re the first city to do so. … Thank you to Evanston for supporting such bold policy and having such a commitment to Black lives here in Evanston,” said Ms. Rue Simmons.

Juneteenth Creative Dance Team

Liberty Bryant, Trinity Bryant and Zoe Tanyavutti danced to “Wade in the Water,” a spiritual believed to have been used by Harriet Tubman to tell escaping slaves to get off dry land and into the water so that tracking dogs would lose their trail. The young performers worked with dance choreographer Dani Jo Williams via Zoom after the pandemic hit.

“This dance group inspired me to learn more about the history of Juneteenth…why the slaves escaped and why Juneteenth is so important,” said Liberty Bryant.

Highlights of an Interview with Opal Lee

NBC 5 News anchor Christian Farr interviewed Opal Lee, now 93 years old and a nationally recognized activist who is more determined than ever to make June 19 a national holiday. The retired teacher and current owner of an urban farm has long been the heart and soul of the yearly Juneteenth Independence Day in her home town of Ft. Worth, Tex.

Christian Farr: “It’s such an honor and a pleasure to be here with you. Thank you for being a part of this. But let’s talk about you. Who is Opal Lee?”

Opal Lee: “Well, I get around to saying that ‘She’s a 93-going-on-94-year-old who gets in everybody’s business.’ And I love doing it. But I’ve got a passion – I’ve got passions. Juneteenth is one of them. And so I wanted to talk to you about that, if you don’t mind.”

Christian Farr: “I don’t mind at all. Tell me why you think it’s so important to recognize Juneteenth, not just for African Americans, but for the whole country.”

Opal Lee: “The whole country. You need to know that 46 or 47 states already observe it. And it’s important because Juneteenth is a unifier. …The celebration – it’s not just a festival. It has education components and art components, empowering youth.”

Christian Farr: “One of the reasons my family moved to Evanston is my wife [ABC7 News weekend anchor Karen Jordan] was raised here. … It’s a multicultural community … and, of course, we are impacted by what’s going on in this country. What should Juneteenth mean to Evanston?”

Opal Lee: “I think we should be about the business of changing minds. … And I think it behooves each of us to go about the business of teaching or showing somebody who’s not on the same page – and it takes patience, you know, to walk up to somebody and say, ‘I’m black, you’re white. What’s your take on this?’ – and they don’t agree with you. It’s a lifetime of educating people…If you could just get people to understand that education and the vote are our tickets to get out of the mess we’re in. And it is a mess – you do know that.”

Christian Farr: “Yes, it is. … In TV, normally I’d be meeting with you in person. We’d be able to embrace one another. Now we have to do it in this virtual world.  What do think about the importance of getting together virtually?”

Opal Lee: “Well, it’s new to me. It seems to have a wider audience, and we are desperately trying to get people to understand this (Juneteenth) is not a Texas thing…I’m telling you, none of us are free until we are all free. … As long as your neighbor is down, you’re down too.

“We are going to have a caravan [in Ft. Worth] … and I’m going to lead it. I’ll walk the two-and-a-half miles and the cars will be behind me. … I want you to know that you need to sign the petition. We plan to send Congress one million signatures, to let them know it’s not just one little old lady in tennis shoes, but that it’s the whole nation that needs Juneteenth as a national holiday.”

Christian Farr: “You’ve talked about a very important message – voting. … You remember a time when African Americans had a difficult time getting to the polls. Why do you think that’s important?”

Opal Lee: “I’m from an area [in Texas] where you had to pay a poll tax. … I had to choose between paying that $1.75 and getting some food. And the tears met under my chin, and I paid the $1.75, not knowing where I’d get food for four kids the next day. But hey, there’s a God up there, so they weren’t hungry. But I spent my last $1.75 to get the poll tax because I felt like voting was extremely important, and it has always been.

"And until we teach people, until they learn that having somebody, I’m gonna say upper management – the people in Congress and the White House – if we don’t have somebody who understands what’s due the people of these United States, we’re in big trouble. Just like we’re in right now. …We’ve got so many homeless people, it hurts. And there, but for the grace of God, I’m not homeless.”

Christian Farr: “I’d like to wrap this up with you having the last word … speaking to the importance of recognizing this date and what it means to this country, what it means to people of all races and ethnicities.”

Opal Lee: “We want them to know, I keep saying it’s a unifier. We’re not just talking Black people. Slaves worked untiringly to get free, but there were a lot of other people who helped. … And as much as they know about [Dr. Martin Luther] King, they don’t know enough about the other people who helped him. The Daisy Bateses [a civil rights activist and newspaper publisher] and all the other folk.

“History is so important to us, because we don’t need to keep repeating it…We’ve gone through this before…get a few gains, and then – boom. We’re back in the same place.

“I want young folk to be passionate about Juneteenth being a unifier. It would be the oldest celebration Black people have championed in these whole United States. Don’t make it just a Black thing. Include everybody, because that’s what it takes – everybody working together to make this what it should be.”

On June 21, 2020 Opal Lee’s Change.org petition for Congress to make Juneteenth a federally observed holiday, reached one million signatures, and the numbers are increasing daily. Supporters of the effort can also sign the petition at www.juneteenth.us

Willie Shaw, Evanston NAACP Membership Chair

Like Ms. Lee and Ms. Hendricks, retired educator Willie Shaw is a proud member of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation.

“Under the direction of then Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, I was able to list Evanston as a national supporter of Juneteenth. Being a supporter means that all of our local Juneteenth activities can be archived with the Foundation,” said Ms. Shaw.

She held up a map of Africa. “This is where they say that I come from. We don’t know which language. Shaw is my name. But they say it’s not my name. This is why I am forever indebted, and will continue the cause, so that one day maybe my grands or great-grands will know their tribe, and will know their language, and will know their name.

“The Declaration of Independence of 1776 is 89 years earlier than 1865. Is this independence for my people? This is why I celebrate, and will continue to celebrate, Juneteenth. It is the history of our people,” said Ms. Shaw.

Youth Performances

Dance and spoken word performances by Evanston youth showcased art inspired by their African heritage. Meri Croft and Adoley Croft danced to “Africa to America: The Journey of the Drum,” released in 1994 by Sounds of Blackness. Young students at Kingsway Preparatory School in Evanston shared their own inspiring messages.

ETHS student Howie Godfrey performed and produced “I Know Where I’ve Been,” from the 2002 motion picture “Hairspray” – a stirring grand finale.

Vanity Robinson and Ashanti Cole-Stallworth read their original lyric poetry. The first lines of their poems, below, leave the reader wanting to hear more.

“Black Love,” by Vanity Robinson

"Black love is a house met by temperaments of time and circumstance

Drained by foreign fingers

Yet enlivened by the stretching legs of babies sharper, bolder more brilliant

Thumping down our threshold

Mashing up that which is beneath them.

But the house will stand. ..."

“Celebrating Freedom,” by Ashanti Cole-Stallworth

"Being Black is so empowering, refreshing, nourishing

Because every time I look deep into my history

I find something even more amazing each time,

Something to treasure, something to celebrate about being Black. …"

Senator Richard Durbin

"African Americans have made Juneteenth “a celebration of community, freedom and an opportunity to commemorate when all people were finally free in America. Now more than ever, we can’t afford to forget slavery’s legacy on our nation’s history,” said Sen. Durbin.

State Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch

An alumnus of Northwestern University, Rep. Welch said he considers himself a “true-blue Evanstonian.”

“This is an opportunity for us to press the movement to make Juneteenth a national holiday…I’m honored that you are all taking the time to celebrate and educate and fully inform everyone on the importance of Juneteenth,” said Rep. Welch.

Mayor Stephen Hagerty

Evanston’s 21st mayor thanked Ms. Hendricks and Evanston Present and Future for organizing Evanston’s inaugural Juneteenth Parade. A Proclamation issued by the mayor and the City of Evanston declares June 2020 as “Juneteenth Month” in honor of Hecky Powell.

“Juneteenth gives us the opportunity to celebrate the strength and diversity of our community and to recognize the contributions of Black Evanstonians who have made a lasting impact on our city, including the late, great Hecky Powell. … I know he’s proud of everyone that helped organize and play a part in this celebration,” Mayor Hagerty said in his remarks.

Tim Rhoze, Artistic Director at Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre

Community leader and producing artistic director at Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre Tim Rhoze brought Evanston’s First Annual Juneteenth Parade across the finish line. Mr. Rhoze gave a powerful and moving tribute to the late Mr. Powell, a lifelong Evanstonian who had an immeasurable impact on the Evanston community and far beyond.

A New York Times headline called Hecky Powell a “Barbecue Master and Civic Leader” who “mentored the young and disadvantaged as well as the powerful.” Gov. J. B. Pritzker called him “genuine, straightforward and practical.” Mr. Rhoze called him a friend.

Untitled #3

By Tim Rhoze

"Say what, Say what?

You say another soldier’s down?

Say what, Say what?

And you think no one else is around

Say what, Say what?

That’s not how we do

Say what, Say what?

Hecky built and left his legacy for me and you

Say what, Say what?

Many times he was scorned

Say what, Say what?

Marked a trouble maker from the time he was born Say what, Say what?

Sometimes deep from within

Say what, Say what?

Pretenders and perpetrators acting like they his friend Say what, Say what?

You can’t stop a determined Black Bull!

Say what, Say what?

Hecky’s legacy will forever be strong!

Say what, Say what?

Even now that he’s gone!!!

...

Say what, Say what?

You say another soldier’s down?

Say what, Say what?

Please.

You better believe...

There’s still plenty of us around...

....

Say what, Say what?

Say what, Say what?

You Say what, Say what?

Say what, Say what?

Everybody Say what, Say what? Say what, Say what..............."

Evanston Present and Future’s social media campaign, “30 Days of Juneteenth,” gave residents an opportunity to share their memories of Mr. Powell, who died in May of complications of Covid-19.

The Juneteenth parade was produced with assistance from local event planning company Bon Events, and with support from generous community sponsors. The one hour, 40 minute event can be viewed at www.evanstonsjuneteenthparade.com or on Evanston Present and Future and Dear Evanston Facebook pages.

Kemone Hendricks and Evanston Present and Future set the stage to ensure that viewers come away educated, entertained, engaged and committed to supporting and celebrating Juneteenth every year as a national holiday.

Other events during the month-long Juneteenth celebration included a play reading and a car parade.

A Community play reading of “Day of Absence” was presented on June 20 by Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre. A live Q&A followed the reading. The production features a blend of professional actors and community members. Written by Douglas Turner Ward, “Day of Absence” was widely acclaimed when it was first produced in 1965, during the time of Jim Crow. Mr. Rhoze said he believes the play remains especially relevant today.

A Juneteenth Car Parade with more than 100 cars traveled along Dodge Avenue on June 27 from Evanston Township High School, 1600 Dodge Ave., to the Levy Senior Center at 300 Dodge Ave.