When artist Jovan Speller moved to Rochester last year, she was surprised to find that Rochester holds an annual Juneteenth celebration.
“I had no idea that this happened,” said Speller, who is curator of art and education at the Rochester Art Center. “I did not expect this at all.”
Speller, who is African-American, conducted art workshops for kids at the Juneteenth celebration June 20 at Cooke Park. Juneteenth marks the anniversary — the 150th this year — of the freeing of the slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865, at the end of the Civil War.
Last year’s event was held at the Rochester Art Center, which is how Speller found out about it. She had previously lived in New York and Chicago. “In bigger cities, you’re on your own,” she said. “There’s a real willingness to build community here.”
That sense of community took on added importance in light of last week’s shooting by a white man of nine black worshipers at a church in Charleston, S.C.
“I don’t shy away from those conversations,” Speller said of the questions of race, hatred and violence. “But I’d much rather put my energy into something positive like this.”
At a table next to her, W.C. Jordan, president of the Rochester chapter of the NAACP, was less hesitant to address the Charleston shooting. “What happened in South Carolina was not an isolated incident,” he said. “There is a history of racial discrimination in the South, and South Carolina is still flying the Confederate flag.”
Juneteenth is an important part of informing young people about that history, Jordan said. “If people don’t know this history, it gets repeated,” he said.
Problems of race transcend the South, he said. Jordan recalled talking with a local law enforcement official a decade ago who assured him that Minnesota is not Mississippi. But, Jordan said, “When we look at some of the disparities now, we are becoming Mississippi.”
Jordan listed housing, employment, education, policing and construction contracts for minority contractors as important issues in Minnesota. “We’ve moved beyond the point of people promising us stuff,” he said.
It is important to get minorities registered to vote, inform voters of the issues, and then vote in such a way that effects change, Jordan said.
Rochester’s Juneteenth celebration is an important step in that process.
“This will help us to collaborate with other organizations and bring the community together more,” Jordan said.