SANTA CRUZ -- Even before Saturday's annual Juneteenth celebration was officially scheduled, sisters Tiffany and Riana Harris knew they'd be spending the afternoon at Laurel Park behind the Louden Nelson Community Center in downtown Santa Cruz.
"We've come to this every year," said Tiffany Harris, while she cradled her daughter Aliyaa Nelson on her lap. "It's a good gathering."
Riana agreed. "We've been coming here since we were little girls," she said. "Our father used to play (perform) here and we come back every years to show our support. We look forward to this every year."
The Soquel High School graduates were among dozens of people who came to the park enjoy music, soul food, moving speakers, crafts and games at the celebration commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln. A long-held tradition among African-Americans, Juneteenth is a special day for anyone who believes in freedom and equality for all people.
The celebration dates back to June 19, 1865, when Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced that the Civil War was over and that the enslaved had been freed on New Year's Day in 1863. In subsequent years, the annual freedom celebration spread to other cities, although the practice waxed and waned over the decades. It enjoyed a resurgence in 1980, after the Texas Legislature passed a bill making Juneteenth an official state holiday, and prompting communities throughout the country to host their own Juneteenth celebrations.
Santa Cruz began hosting its annual Juneteenth events about 20 years ago, estimated Ana Elizabeth of Sure Thing Productions and Management, which booked the performers and set up the stage and sound system. Although the exact date of the first local celebration is unclear, Elizabeth noted that the significance of the event is clear.
"Santa Cruz has such a small African-American population that this is really an important event for the community," Elizabeth said of the celebration sponsored by the City of Santa Cruz and the staff of the Louden Nelson Community Center. "It's a really vibrant community event."
Many people, like the Harris sisters, come to the celebration each year.
"I really enjoy the music and seeing the families and the kids growing up," Riana Harris said. "This is an event that appeals to all ages and it's cool to see so many familiar faces."
The celebration is also a fund-raiser for church groups, such as the Word of Life Church in Santa Cruz. Volunteers from the church donned colorful green T-shirts and sold food and beverages from their booth to raise money for the organization's general fund and to help send kids in their congregation to Disneyland.
People of all ages, from infants to elderly, and all races came to the park to enjoy the sunshine, sense of community and performances by Rich Tycoon, Sista Monica, Issac Collins, Diaspora Dance Co., The Tanner Boys Hip Hop Group, the Rev. Deborah Johnson and others. Tycoon, who's real name is Richie Hampton, came do the park from his home in Oakland to perform and celebrate freedom, both literally and figurative. After several stints in prison, Hampton, who grew up in foster homes and on the streets, uses his music to encourage others to avoid his mistakes.
"My message is for the gangsters and rappers to avoid prison," said Hampton, who works with underground and emerging musicians in the 831 area code. "If you want to make music, you need to stay free and make your music."
People danced on the grass while Hampton and others performed. Children played with colorful beach balls and posed for pictures with Maverick's the Santa Cruz Warrior's team mascot, who was in attendance. Older children and young adults took part in a basketball contest held on the court adjacent to the lawn area by staff members from the city's Parks and Recreation Department.
"It's an opportunity for people of all colors to get together and celebrate freedom and equality," said Deborah Hill-Alston, president of the Santa Cruz Chapter of the NAACP. Hill-Alston and other volunteers were serving shave ice, distributing information about their organization, talking to visitors and hoping to enroll lifetime members.