Thirty years ago, the first Juneteenth celebration in Ogden came together as little more than a hastily executed Plan B.
Three decades later, the event has grown to a multi-day, multi-city event that can only be described as a definite, solid Plan A.
“Whoo, we’ve come a long way,” said Betty Sawyer, director of the Utah Juneteenth Freedom & Heritage Festival and the community engagement coordinator at Weber State University. “But it was a last-minute thing that first year.”
Sawyer says the first Juneteenth in Ogden came together on the fly. Just two weeks before the 1989 celebration was to be held in Salt Lake City, she says, the young men who were tasked with securing the location admitted they’d forgotten to reserve the park.
As a result, the Juneteenth organizing committee basically had an event with nowhere to go.
“I said, ‘Look, I have a friend who’s the director of the Marshall White Center in Ogden. Let me see if we can come up and do it there,’” Sawyer recalls. “We then put the word out that the event was to be in Ogden, made some calls and found a flatbed trailer for a stage, and that was it. No decorations, no nothing.”
Although Juneteenth events have also been held in Salt Lake over the years, the state’s official celebration has been held in Ogden ever since.
“It just felt right to continue to hold it in Ogden, and maintain a presence here,” Sawyer said.
Juneteenth is a nationwide celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. It dates back to June 1865, when Union soldiers finally arrived in Galveston, Texas — two and a half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation — with the news that the Civil War had ended and all slaves were free.
“Juneteenth provides us an opportunity to engage in a fuller celebration and understanding of American freedom,” Adrienne Andrews, WSU vice president for diversity, is quoted in a news release. “It is also a helpful reminder of what is at stake when we fail to recognize the full humanity of those different from ourselves.”
This year’s Juneteenth Festival will be held Saturday and Sunday at the Ogden Amphitheater, 343 Historic 25th St., in Ogden. Although early reports and event posters listed admission to the festival as $5, Sawyer said organizers decided to make it free. Donations are welcome.
The festival kicks off with a parade at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Marshall White Community Center, 222 28th St., in Ogden. The parade will continue on to the Ogden Amphitheater, where the festival will run from noon to 9 p.m Saturday and Sunday.
One of the highlights of the festival will be the opening ceremony at 2 p.m. Saturday in the amphitheater.
“We’ll have music going on before that, but at 2 p.m. the drum will call us all together and we’ll have a health and healing celebration,” Sawyer said. “It’s an opportunity to come together and pray together and say, ‘I forgive you, you forgive me.’ And people are invited to call out the names of family members and ancestors from the past, or those who are guiding us in our current life.”
The two-day event will feature “a lot of entertainment,” according to Sawyer. Hip-hop, R&B, gospel, jazz, blues and more will be on tap. Several spoken-word artists will also perform. Sawyer says a Haitian singer is a new addition to this year’s festival.
On Sunday, the Legendary Joe McQueen Quartet will perform, as the community continues to celebrate the 100th birthday of the local saxophone player, according to Sawyer.
Sunday will also involve a Father’s Day Tribute, along with the inaugural Willie Moore and Billy Mason “Golden Clipper Barber Battle,” honoring the two barbering and mentoring icons in the Ogden and Salt Lake communities.
Food and beverages will be available, and a number of new vendors have been added this year, according to Sawyer.
This weekend’s festival is part of a larger celebration, Sawyer explained. On June 8, a Children’s Festival was held in West Jordan. On Friday, a Wealth Building Summit will be conducted from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Weber State University Davis campus, in Building D3, 2750 University Park Blvd., Layton. That summit covers the basics of financial empowerment.
Then at 6:30 p.m. that day in the same building, the State of Black Utah Town Hall will be held. It includes a reception and roundtable discussion “honoring the voices of youth,” according to a news release from Weber State University. The Mr. and Miss Juneteenth Scholarship Pageant winners will also be crowned.
The month’s worth of celebrations will conclude on the evening of June 19 with the Health & Heritage event with Excellence in the Community at the Gallivan Center in Salt Lake City.
One of the biggest challenges in holding the festival every year, according to Sawyer, is convincing people that Juneteenth isn’t just for people of color.
“We try to dispel that myth every year,” Sawyer said. “Oftentimes, when we talk about the celebrations of our diverse history in this country, we think they’re only for that one group of people. But history is for everybody. … It’s important that everybody comes out to this festival.”
Sawyer said she’s hopeful that the word is slowly getting out that Juneteenth is for all.
“When you look at some of the photographs of Juneteenth over the years, you see it’s getting more diverse as time goes by,” she said.