Denver celebrates Juneteenth as state holiday for first time with weekend festival

Event’s traditions go back to the 1950s in Five Points neighborhood

By: - June 17, 2022 5:00 am

People attend the Juneteenth Music Festival in Denver, Colorado in 2021. (Courtesy Juneteenth Music Festival Corporation)

As a kid, state Sen. James Coleman associated Juneteenth with the food and festivity: turkey legs, candy and grabbing a new shirt from one of the many vendors who lined the street in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood.

“It was like our Fourth of July,” Coleman said.

As he grew up, and especially as he entered public office, however, the Denver Democrat became familiar with both the history of Juneteenth and the duty of continuing to advocate for all types of freedom within the Black community.

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Juneteenth commemorates the day, June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to share the news of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed enslaved people in secessionist states and was issued more than two years earlier. It’s a holiday about that freedom, but also about delayed justice.

Denver’s Juneteenth celebration dates back to the 1950s with an annual parade and street festival, but this year is especially significant as Coloradans commemorate the day for the first time as an official state holiday.

“This is an opportunity for folks to show that Colorado believes in freedom for everybody, not just the Black community, but freedom for everybody and that they are able to exercise that freedom,” Coleman said.

Coleman led the effort to establish Juneteenth as a paid state holiday alongside state Sen. Janet Buckner and state Rep. Leslie Herod. It passed through the General Assembly with widespread bipartisan support and Gov. Jared Polis signed the legislation into law in May. Juneteenth became a federal holiday last year.

“Juneteenth is my Independence Day, and I think that’s the Independence Day for Black people,” Buckner, a Democrat, said. “This is one of the most important parts of history that needs to be commemorated.”

Decades of Denver history

Denver’s first Juneteenth celebration was organized by Texas native and prominent Five Points business owner Otha P. Rice in 1953, according to the Denver Public Library. The event carried on throughout the 1950s and 1960s before coming under the direction of the Five Points Business Association in 1966 with the help of Al Richardson, another local business owner and community leader.

“It was like a community cultural treasure chest,” Norman Harris, the current executive director of the festival, said of the Juneteenth celebrations he attended as a kid. “It was a lot more than music. It was our community putting forward their best products and services for other folks to consume. It was really just a big northeast Denver family reunion.”

The Juneteenth parade in Denver in 1993. (The Denver Public Library, Western History Collection)

In 2012, the celebration was rebranded as the Juneteenth Music Festival for a two-day event that features the classic components of live music, vendors and a parade but in a more organized capacity. JMF is a nonprofit that puts on the festival, as well as year-round programming.

“We tried to give it more purpose and define it,” Harris said of that shift. “It seemed like there was a lull in engagement. We believe music is the connector that brings communities together and breaks down silos, so it allows us to have multi-generational and diverse participation in the celebration.”

JMF has built upon the legacy of Denver’s Juneteenth celebrations, Harris said, and he hopes it is sustainable for decades to come. Harris said the festival has grown exponentially, hosting twice as many people in 2021 than in 2019. Over the two days, he estimates it attracts about 150,000 attendees.

This year, the festival is on June 18 and 19 at 27th and Welton streets with headliners Dave East and Twista. It will kick off with a parade at 11 a.m. on Saturday.

Juneteenth events in Colorado

Juneteenth moving forward

For Darlene Sampson, an equity specialist coordinator for the Western Educational Equity Assistance Center, history must take precedence over the music and festivities of Juneteenth.

“We need to start with the historical and look beyond the parade, food and artifacts,” she said. “Juneteenth is both a somber, divisive and triumphant day. If we are authentically telling the truth, we have to talk about the fact that it is not just a whole bunch of booths, music and food.”

She encourages white people to approach Juneteenth as a call to action to practice allyship throughout the year. It’s not only about going down to the festival and dancing, but also about committing to ongoing behavior that promotes equity.

“If our white allies and other allies are going to commemorate the day in a way that is honest, then they should support black businesses and organizations. Attend events. Educate other white people about equity and the history of Juneteenth. Push against the rise of white nationalism. Speak up,” she said.

We need to start with the historical and look beyond the parade, food and artifacts.

– Darlene Sampson, of the Western Educational Equity Assistance Center

Bucker said the holiday is for everyone, even though it focuses on a particular group.

“I want everyone to come and celebrate, because this is not just for Black people. This is giving us that hope for the future for all people, no matter what color you are, no matter what nationality what you are, no matter what your religion is. This is a time for all of us to come together,” she said.

JMF organizes events all year, not just the festival. That includes “community mashups” on topics like homeownership, financial literacy and civic engagement. In November it holds a gala.

“It’s about bringing folks together and having elevated conversations to improve our community’s consciousness,” Harris said.

In the future, Coleman wants to harness the economic impact of Denver’s Juneteenth celebration to benefit the Black-owned businesses in Five Points. That could look like a Colorado Gives Day on Juneteenth itself, to incentivize consumers to make tax deductible donations to local nonprofits.

“I’d love to be able to make it not just about celebration, but how do we really benefit folks economically? That’s the key for us to have true freedom — to be able to afford to have land or business,” he said. “At the end of the day, that’s what we need in this country.”

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Sara Wilson
Sara Wilson

Sara Wilson covers state government, Colorado's congressional delegation, energy and other stories for Newsline. She formerly was a reporter for The Pueblo Chieftain, where she covered politics and government in southern Colorado. Wilson earned a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and as a student she reported on Congress and other federal beats in Washington, D.C.

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