Somewhere, Elbra Wedgeworth is smiling. To be precise, the former Denver city councilwoman is smiling down from her portrait on the third floor of the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library at 24th and Welton streets. Because fortune — hard-earned fortune — is finally smiling on this spot.
On Tuesday, the Denver 2008 Convention Host Committee staged a small gathering here to announce the 24 venues where it will host welcoming parties for the 54 recognized delegations (no parties for you, Michigan and Florida!) on Sunday, August 24, the evening before the Democratic National Convention kicks off at the Pepsi Center and those delegates get down to the serious business of nominating a presidential candidate. Democrats Abroad and the Virgin Islands were lucky enough to snag this library; for a complete list of the delegation party venues, click here.
That the Democrats are coming here at all is largely thanks to Wedgeworth, who was still on the city council when she decided to push for the convention in Denver, the town where she'd grown up, and continued to push until the Democratic National Committee finally surrendered in January 2007 to the irrefutable logic contained in the city's fifteen-pound proposal. "With 6,000 delegates planning on attending the convention, there has never been a larger spotlight on Denver," pronounces Wedgeworth, now working at Denver Health but still the Host Committee president/chair. "We're excited to showcase all that the region has to offer — its energy, diversity and exciting opportunities."
And the area around the Blair-Caldwell library — which marks its fifth anniversary on May 1 — is showing clear signs of renewed energy. Because the big news in Five Points isn't just the DNC, but another event that had announced its comeback at the same venue the day before: Juneteenth.
On June 19, 1865, word finally reached slaves living in Galveston, Texas, that they were free — almost two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. They marked the date with a celebration called Juneteenth.
As former slaves and descendents of former slaves began leaving the South and moving north and west, they brought Juneteenth with them. Denver grabbed on to the holiday with a vengeance. "For the longest time, we had the largest celebration in the nation," remembers LaWanna Larson, director of the Black American West Museum. "It was huge, bigger than Cinco de Mayo. It celebrated what it meant for people to find out two years later that they had been freed."
But last year, what had been the largest Juneteenth celebration in the nation disappeared. Christopher Columbus was partly to blame: Revisionist historians have him enslaving many of the people living in the land he "discovered," and he also jinxed Juneteenth. In order to cope with the inevitable, and ugly, competition for Columbus Day parade permits, several years ago Denver changed its permitting process to a lottery. And in 2006, the Five Points Business Association — which had organized the Juneteenth parade along Welton Street for more than forty years — discovered that a nearby church had won the Juneteenth parade permit that day. With the help of Wedgeworth, who represented Five Points, the association held a smaller celebration that year, but it disappeared altogether in 2007.
Now Juneteenth is back — or it will be, if the group that gathered at the Blair-Caldwell library Monday has its way. "This was not something I planned on being involved in a year ago," said former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, now president of the Colorado Black Chamber of Commerce, standing near a cabinet filled with mementos from his administration. "I volunteered to try to bring people together to all work around a common purpose."
Brother Jeff Fard admits that he pushed Webb into his volunteer job. Last September, Fard, who runs Brother Jeff's Cultural Center on Welton, organized a crowded community forum with the title "State of Black Colorado — Where Do We Go From Here?," and while the audience brought up such hot-button topics as education and foreclosures, "Juneteenth also kept coming up," he remembers. "This was an opportunity for us to showcase and highlight our culture and show it to others."
For Fard, a native of northeast Denver, "Juneteenth is something I grew up with," he says. "It was part of the social fabric of this community." Long before Fard was born, Five Points was the center of the black community, a jumping jazz mecca filled with small businesses and homes and bars that catered to the working men who weren't allowed in downtown establishments. And even as this town's African-American residents began moving out of Five Points and across the metro area, they continued to return to Welton Street on Father's Day weekend for Juneteenth. Fard remembers that, and he also remembers when both the crowds and Juneteenth volunteers started dwindling in the '80s. "It began to be taken for granted, as if this was just an event that was going to happen," he says. "Finally, it got into crisis mode. I could look up and down the streets and see no one. It was like a ghost town."
And that wasn't a condition unique to Juneteenth. "The older traditions began to go away, and the businesses weren't really viable," Fard recalls. "Children chose not to go into the family business. Five Points became a place that people thought about as a desolate area. But it wasn't the case, and today you're looking at lofts starting at $400,000. I have great hopes for Five Points. I've seen it in some of its more challenging situations, struggling to do great things, and now everything that Five Points wants to be could come into fruition."
Five Points may be changing, but its past is solid. And so on June 14, Webb, Fard and other local leaders and groups will host "Juneteenth: The Rebirth," refocusing energy on the historic heart and soul of Denver's black community. "The timing is right," Fard explains.
The timing, and the leadership. Webb was at that September meeting, Fard recalls, and when the words "We will have Juneteenth again" flew out of the former mayor's mouth, that was all it took. "From there, the community took ownership of it," Fard says. "We have a list of organizations that are constantly joining in." And they're always looking for more at www.brotherjeff.com.
"The history of this community is solid; it is sound. It is not going to go away," he says. "But it is not going to live on unless it is shared."
See you at the party.
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