Free for All
On June 19, 1865, word finally reached slaves living in Galveston 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 they called Juneteenth.
"As people started to leave the South with the Great Migration in the 1930s, they spread the celebration of the emancipation from slavery," says Modupe Labode, chief historian for the Colorado Historical Society. "There were different dates, but Juneteenth became the one people were using."
Denver's Juneteenth celebration took over Welton Street at the height of the Civil Rights movement in the mid-'60s. "Colorado was the one that took it and ran with it," says LaWanna Larson, director of the Black American West Museum. "For the longest time, we had the largest celebration in the nation. It was huge. It celebrated what it meant for people to find out two years later that they had been freed."
The news about this year's Juneteenth has been slow to arrive in Denver, too.
On May 25, the Five Points Business Association -- which had organized the Juneteenth parade for forty years running -- announced that its parade had been canceled this year, "a result of not winning a lottery for a parade permit to host the event on June 17, 2006."
Blame Christopher Columbus for that. Revisionist historians have him enslaving many of the people living in the land he "discovered," and he also put the kibosh on the FPBA's parade marking the end of slavery. That's because in 2002, Denver adopted new regulations governing how parade permits are issued when different groups are vying for the same date and route. The only day that was hotly contested, of course, was Columbus Day, with Italian-American and Native American groups both fighting to be the first to get a permit for the second Saturday in October. Rather than continue the first-come, first-served policy -- which sometimes resulted in people camping out for six weeks on the steps of the city permitting building -- the new rule determined that "the Manager of Safety (or his/her designee) shall draw at random from the applications received for parade permits for the date at issue."
Last fall, Councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth went to the Five Points Business Association and asked what portion of the Juneteenth celebration it wanted to retain. "We'd been doing both the parade and the Juneteenth event," says Marva Coleman, who's been FPBA's director since 1998. "A couple of years ago, I realized I couldn't keep the office open and do both." So she reached out to the community, explained that the celebration was costing close to $100,000, told the dailies that she needed help -- and "no one responded," Coleman remembers. That's when Wedgeworth and others stepped in to raise money to keep Juneteenth going. Coleman told the councilwoman that the business group would continue to handle the parade.
But this year, for the first time ever, another group applied for a Welton Street parade permit on the third Saturday in June. After the FPBA lost the lottery for the June 17 date, Coleman announced that, "with sadness and regret," it would "not be able to go forward with plans to host the Juneteenth Parade."
But the show -- some show -- will go on.
The FPBA's unlikely competitor was the Kingdom of Glory Christian Center, a two-year-old church located at 2485 Welton Street -- the old True Value store. "We won the lottery, God bless," says Cassandra Stevens. "This little bitty church, two years old, is running the parade."
And running it out of one of Welton's most notorious failed rejuvenation ventures, a building put up for auction after the City of Denver and the Small Business Administration both took a bath when the minority business owners defaulted on close to a million dollars in loans ("Nailed," December 11, 2003). The building ultimately was sold to Kingdom of Glory, whose pastor, Juanitha Jacobs-Brennan, was trained by Marilyn Hickey. The church holds services a couple of times a week, as well as Bible study. And during off-hours, there's a handy drive-up prayer box. "Let's say you're struggling," Stevens says. "God needs to hear the prayer. We are just the vessel."
Juneteenth is just another delivery system for getting the word of the Lord out. "The pastor has a large vision, and we want to take that vision and run with it," says Stevens. "She really enjoys being a light."
The light will dawn at 10 a.m. June 17 at Welton and Downing streets. The church doesn't have any floats yet, Stevens says, but people have committed to march down Welton to Sonny Lawson Park, the cyclone-fenced ballfield at Park Avenue West, where a festival will run both Saturday and Sunday. "That's what we did last year," Stevens says. "If there was a parade last year, it was a very small one, and we weren't part of it. But we did the festival." Several churches set up booths, and Hickey herself was there. Kingdom of Glory is currently looking for vendors, dance teams and drama teams to fill out the lineup.
But the church isn't the only game in town.
The Nineteenth of June Community Celebration Committee, Wedgeworth's group that hired Wil Alston to produce the non-parade events, plans several activities spread through the week leading to June 17, all under the umbrella theme "Celebrate the Colours of Soul." But as of Tuesday, the committee's website (www.denverjuneteenth.org) offered only a preliminary list and still had the parade presented by the Five Points Business Association.
Still, plans are firm at the Black American West Museum, located just around the corner from the parade's starting point at 3091 California Street, in the Justina Ford House, home of Colorado's first African-American doctor. Larson has spent the last year cleaning and renovating the facility, which will be open all day with children's programs, screenings of black Westerns, and the standard exhibits. There will also be free hayrides with a black cowboy who'll teach kids rope tricks and "talk about some of the significance of the sites on Welton Street," she says. "He'll talk about the past and the present, and why people came out here a hundred years ago, and why they're still coming out here."
Then, as now, they saw opportunity here. "Coming to the West was important for African-Americans," Larson says. "It wasn't as racist here. There were just more chances to succeed that they didn't find down South."
By the '20s, Five Points was the heart of Denver's black business community, and it stayed that way for decades. Welton held block after block of thriving storefront shops, as well as nightclubs that were renowned not just in Denver, but across the country. The slide started in the late '60s and early '70s, as many longtime residents moved to other parts of town or out of Denver altogether, and businesses suffered. But today the area is coming back -- not as quickly as so many parts of this boom-and-bust-and-boom town, but coming back nonetheless.
Before the Kingdom of Glory landed in the 2400 block, the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library had already become a modern landmark. Behind the library, the Central Baptist Church is expanding. Although Minerva's hat store is moving, the Roxy, an old movie theater, is reopening, and the Rossonian may finally be fully occupied. Yes, lofts are popping up faster than prairie dogs. And after more than five decades, Zona's continues to serve the best pig's-ear sandwiches in town.
"It's slow, but you know what? Good things come to those who wait," says Coleman. "Yes, there are things happening." Including Juneteenth, "and the only thing canceled is our involvement," she says, sounding much less alarmist than her release of two weeks ago -- but that doesn't mean she's ready to forgive the church its sin.
Wedgeworth hopes that people who long ago moved out of the neighborhood will come back on June 17. "We want to get the whole community engaged in Juneteenth," she says. "We've been working really hard, but we still have a long way to go. To keep the cultural legacy of that area is very important. Five Points has been struggling for a while."
One day, though, she can see Juneteenth outgrowing Welton and perhaps moving to City Park -- just as Cinco de Mayo left Santa Fe Drive, the traditional business heart of Hispanic Denver, for the Civic Center. "We're still committed," she says. "Juneteenth is for everybody."
Everybody who knows it's happening.
The truth will set you free.
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