Best of the CRANDIC Spotlight: Johnson County’s Juneteenth balanced past and present, education and celebration

Johnson County Juneteenth organizers Keshia Fields, Royceann Porter and Laurie Nash. — Jason Smith/Little Village

Best of the CRANDIC 2021 winner of Best Cultural Event

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers sailed into Galveston, Texas, and read aloud the order freeing the state’s quarter-million slaves. The occasion has long been commemorated by Black Southerners, and the first local Juneteenth festival was organized by LaTasha DeLoach in 2011. Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague declared Juneteenth an official city holiday this year on June 15; two days later, President Joe Biden made it a federal holiday.

Little Village caught up with Keshia Fields, Johnson County’s inclusion and equity specialist and co-chair for the county’s 2021 Juneteenth festival, which included talks, performances, food, a film screening and a history walk.

This year marked the 10th anniversary of the first Iowa City Juneteenth celebration and the first year it was recognized as an official city holiday. Was there a lot of pressure when planning this year’s events?

The planning committee was like, how can we make this an effective event for everyone, especially due to the pandemic? How are we going to work with restrictions and keep everybody safe? So that was the most pressure — that, and I had to follow in LaTasha DeLoach’s footsteps.

What were some of the highlights?

The History Walk-In, that was my baby. It was telling the history of Juneteenth, the history of Juneteenth in Iowa City, and focusing on influential people in the area. Being able to showcase Black-owned businesses, and also getting people to walk into those Black-owned businesses, a lot of people were saying, “Oh, I didn’t know this was here.” I’m glad that Juneteenth was able to highlight those businesses and history in the community.

Juneteenth is a reason for the community to come together and celebrate. How do you balance that with reflecting on a history that is at times very dark? It definitely is a balance. You know, you want to have this positive outlook on Juneteenth and how far we’ve come. But you also don’t want to forget our history and why we are celebrating Juneteenth, because we overcame so much. So it varies with each planning committee and also the current climate. Now it’s a time for us to educate more on the history of Juneteenth and not more so about the celebration of Juneteenth.

Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

Hopefully we’ll be in a better situation with the pandemic on Juneteenth 2022. Do you have any big plans?

Next year is gonna be bigger and better. In my mind, I just see it growing more and more each year, and different communities [starting] their own Juneteenths: North Liberty, or the smaller communities like Swisher and Shueyville. We can celebrate in so many different areas. I’m crossing my fingers that that’s gonna happen. No — I’m manifesting that that’s gonna happen.

If there were one thing you think somebody who’s never heard of Juneteenth or has misconceptions about it should understand about the holiday, what would it be?

It would be helping people to feel like they belong. And reaching out to people in your community that may not look like you and forming relationships with them in understanding, getting to know their culture, getting to know them. With Juneteenth, we’re inviting people in to get to know us, to get to know our culture, to get to know our history, and everybody’s family. Everyone is invited. It’s about belonging, and to help people know that and experience that and want to help neighbors feel more welcomed in their communities. That’s just an amazing thing.

Subscribe to LV Daily for community news, events, photos and more in your inbox every weekday afternoon.

Little Village Best of the CRANDIC is presented by City of Iowa City.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 301.