Juneteenth celebrations expand in the River Parishes

Published 12:10 am Wednesday, June 7, 2023

LAPLACE — The St. John the Baptist Parish community was among the first in the state to commemorate Juneteenth. Since Juneteenth became a federal holiday, local celebrations have expanded into multi-day celebrations highlighting liberation, education, and how African American culture has shaped our society.

While the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in 1863, news of the executive decree did not travel instantaneously. On June 19, 1865, Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas to announce that more than 250,000 enslaved people in the state were now free. Juneteenth is considered America’s second Independence Day, the first day the entire nation was free, and the start of a new era of hope.

All River Parishes government officials as well as social, civic, senior and youth organizations are invited to the fourth annual St. John the Baptist Parish Juneteenth Freedom Day – “A celebration of history, heritage, music and liberation.” Freedom Day kicks off at 9 a.m. Saturday, June 17 following a commemorative march from Home Depot to the Parish Government Building at 1811 W. Airline Highway in LaPlace. The march will begin at 8 a.m.

Organizer and local educator Derron Cook said Black Music Month is also celebrated in June. Cook has always had a passion for exploring Black history, especially as it is expressed through art. After graduating with his master’s degree in museum studies from Southern University at New Orleans in 2022, Cook fulfilled a bucket list goal of opening a museum. His exhibition space on the second floor of 105 W. Fifth St. in LaPlace has focused on chronicling the 1811 Slave Revolt, which began in LaPlace, as well as Black achievements and protests that had roots in the River Parishes, including the fight for voting rights. Cook has a Black history exhibition at Southern University New Orleans that debuted in February and has since been extended.

“We have been faced with history being altered or suppressed, and we want to focus on those stories that are important to the African American community in terms of Black history, being that African Americans were and are very vital to the building of this nation,” Cook said. “To allow those parts of history to come forward without any restrictions, that is the liberation of the people. That’s what we are focusing on for Juneteenth.”

Leading up to the Freedom Day event, all are invited to join a “Light Up the Night for Black Lives” glow in the dark community bike ride starting at 7 p.m. Friday, June 16. Across the community, bikers are encouraged to grab glow sticks, join neighbors, and post pictures while remembering the lives of those lost to violence.

“The goal is to create a cohesive network of Juneteenth events throughout the River Parishes,” Cook said.

Following Friday’s bike ride and the Freedom Day celebration on Saturday, the Greater St. Charles Parish NAACP is hosting a Juneteenth event from 2 to 6 p.m. Monday, June 19 at the West Bank Bridge Park in Luling. Booth space is $30, and vendors can register by contacting Christal Frickey at 504-554-3133 or Keisha Guidry at 703-371-3706.

Drummers, singers and other performers are still needed for the June 17 Freedom Day event at the Government Complex in LaPlace. For more information on how to participate, contact Keila Cook at 504-704-0260.

The fun will continue throughout the weekend as community member Kita Harry hosts a separate two-day Juneteenth program in LaPlace. Harry and her mother opened Top Notch Creole Creations at 975 Cambridge Drive in LaPlace to share recipes that have endured the test of time while being passed down through generations of family. The opening of the restaurant in 2022 coincided with Top Notch’s second annual Juneteenth event, celebrating the contributions of the Black community in Creole food, art, gospel music and more.

Harry pledged to revitalize the community in times of hardship by making the Juneteenth festival bigger and better, year after year.

The celebration kicks off at 11 a.m. Saturday, June 17 with a jambalaya/pastalaya cook-off and car show in the parking lot of the restaurant. Sunday will feature a pop-up shop, a Juneteenth program beginning at 11 a.m., presentation of the Juneteenth honoree at noon, a stop the violence prayer vigil at 3 p.m., and a comedy show starting at 7:30 p.m. Tickets to the comedy show can be purchased at Top Notch Creole Creations Restaurant.

“This is the third annual event, and I’m adding a comedy show, a car show, and a cook-off. Last year we had it with the grand opening of my restaurant, but it goes beyond that. It’s about making the Juneteenth holiday something big, something that we can celebrate the way we celebrate other holidays,” Harry said. “We’ve been granted this holiday for such a significant reason, and I’m really trying to make it something grand in St. John Parish. My main focus this year is making it bigger and better, and we’re going to have everyone come together to learn about the roots of Juneteenth. That way, we can appreciate how far we have come as an African-American community.”

Vendors, performers, volunteers and guest speakers are still being sought for the Festival Weekend. To participate, call or text Harry at 504-939-2935.

On the West Bank of St. John Parish, Whitney Plantation Museum is commemorating Juneteenth with a fun-filled festival on June 17. The free event includes entry into the museum, a self-guided tour of the grounds and buildings, and vendor booths featuring artwork, apparel, jewelry, and hand-crafted items.

The festival also includes dance lessons for the New Orleans-based Neungola Sibo African Dance and Drum Company Inc.; health screenings with cholesterol, glucose, and blood pressure checks; and a conversation about the role that food has played in the lives of Black Louisianans hosted by New Orleans chef, cookbook author and cultural ambassador Toya Boudy. Food, beverages and snacks from vendors based in St. John Parish and the surrounding area will be available for purchase.

Organizers request that attendees register for the event and download the Whitney Plantation app before the day’s events. For more information about the Juneteenth Freedom Day program, visit www.whitneyplantation.org

“We are excited to celebrate the promises of freedom and its legacies for the communities of Southeast Louisiana and beyond,” said Amber Mitchell, director of education at Whitney Plantation. “We hope that the 2023 Juneteenth Freedom Festival might serve as a small token of our respect and appreciation for our St. John the Baptist community and families across our area.”

A few miles upriver, RISE St. James is hosting its annual Juneteenth teach-in, celebration and crawfish boil beginning at 5 p.m. on Saturday, June 17 at Welcome Park in St. James. The event will feature research and teaching presentations, music and dancing, free food/crawfish, an art showcase, on-site prizes, community empowerment and more.