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On the first day of Black History Month, Mayor Greg Fischer announced the creation of a commission to manage and promote citywide Juneteenth celebrations. 

Fischer signed an executive order Monday forming a 15-member commission to help organize events celebrating Juneteenth and its historical significance in Louisville.

Last year, Fischer announced Juneteenth as a holiday for city employees as protesters organized their own celebration of Juneteenth in Jefferson Square Park, the epicenter of the city’s protests for racial justice. 

The mayor noted it’s difficult to say what the event could look like this year because of the pandemic, but wants to start planning both for this year and next, when he expects a “more robust in-person event.”

“Juneteenth has long been a day of celebration in the Black community and I believe it’s past time that the city as a whole honors the victory for freedom that Juneeth represents,” Fischer said.   

The 15-member commission will review opportunities for expanding education programming and developing virtual events for 2021. On behalf of the city, Wanda Mitchell-Smith will chair the commission. It will also include council members Paula McCraney (D-7), Keisha Dorsey (D-3) and Jecorey Arthur (D-4) as well as representatives from Louisville’s arts, business, education and faith communities. Arthur was involved in creating 2020’s virtual Juneteenth celebrations.

The city had no involvement in last year’s celebration at Jefferson Square Park. Juneteenth 2020 came as the city of Louisville reached an inflection point after the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others prompted protests for racial equity at a scale not seen since the Civil Rights era. 

Three days before the celebration, the city police declared an unlawful assembly, shot racial justice protesters with pepper balls and used a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) to deter protesters. Ten days after Juneteenth, Louisville Metro Police and Fischer were issuing apologies for destroying protester property when they cleared tents at Jefferson Square Park. 

Instead, last year’s Juneteenth celebration was thrown by the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and Roots 101 African American Museum. The museum helped put on musical acts, dances, stilt walkers and discussions on the history of the holiday.

Roots 101 founder Lamont Collins said he would have preferred the city work with nonprofits like his to help throw the celebration, but no one from the city reached out to his organization to be included in the commission. 

“Instead of seeing funding going to a one-day project, I would love to see the money go to a project that’s dealing with racism, that’s dealing with history,” Collins said. 

The museum is fundraising for donations to support its operations.

Shameka Parrish-Wright, a protest organizer who plans to run for mayor in 2022, said she hopes the celebrations will be at Jefferson Square Park again. She calls the spot by its nickname, Injustice Square Park, which was adopted during last year’s protests.

Parrish-Wright said last year participants were safe, with food and entertainment provided by Black-owned businesses and vendors. As co-director of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, she worked with Collins to organize the 2020 celebration downtown.

“A great path forward is to support what works and makes a difference because we have done the work of the city without our city government’s support financially or physically,” she said in a text message to WFPL News.

Juneteenth celebrates June 19, 1865, when enslaved Black people in Texas were freed following the end of the Civil War, but that was not the end of slavery in Kentucky, according to Aukram Burton, executive director of Kentucky Center for African American Heritage.

Kentucky was one of two Union border states where slavery remained legal until later that year, when Congress ratified the 13th Amendment on Dec. 18th, 1865, liberating approximately 225,000 Kentuckians from bondage, Burton said.

The celebration of Juneteenth helps inform and raise awareness of the racial inequities that continue to exist at the same time it helps to preserve the errors of the past.

“I am hopeful that the mayor’s action will bring citizens of Metro Louisville and Kentucky to celebrate our common bond of freedom through the recognition, observance, education and historic preservation of Juneteenth,” Burton said. 

 

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.