GRAND JUNCTION, CO – After months hunkered down in the grim shadow of a global pandemic, followed by weeks of mournful vigils, tense meetings between established institutions and local Black activists, and culminating in an anxious and angry audience at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, this afternoon’s Juneteenth celebration — the first in Mesa County — was a remarkable shift in mood and a welcome break.
Held at Lincoln Park from 4:00 pm until around 7:30, the BBQ party and educational forum was organized by Right & Wrong in partnership with Black Citizens and Friends. Between 300-400 people attended the festive gathering, along with Mesa County Commissioners John Justman and Scott McInnis; Kyle Harvey of the Fruita City Council; Palisade mayor Greg Mikolai; District 51 superintendent Diana Sirko and assistant superintendent Brian Hill; and Anna Stout, Phillip Pe’a, and Rick Taggart of the Grand Junction City Council, as well as Grand Junction mayor Duke Wortmann.
Local students and volunteers created a walkway of history along the winding path from the parking lot and around the green expanse in front of the stage. Posters, colorful artwork, books, and other materials depicting various milestones and notable people and organizations in Black history, as well as institutions that have played major roles in the oppression of people of color, adorned tables dotting the paved path.
Once visitors and guests had navigated the walk through history, they were greeted at the end by tables groaning from the weight of trays of food. Volunteers had contributed crowd-pleasing favorites, including fried chicken, pulled pork, cornbread, and mac ‘n’ cheese. Cafe Sol donated trays of fresh salads. Nearby, a grill station served plates of freshly grilled chicken and corn on the cob. Other tables overflowed with cold sodas and punch as well as bags of chips.
Carlee Allen, a student at Fruita Monument High School who had spoken about voting rights at last Sunday’s teach-in, was among the students who created the information posters. She designed posters about the Black Panthers and the Haitian revolution.
Her experience at the teach-in, despite her anxiety about speaking to a crowd of adults, fueled her passion for activism and social change. “I’ve been to all the protests and marches, and I’m very vocal on social media, too. I’ve always been super passionate about Black activism.”
Richard Crespin, a longtime activist who has lived his entire life in the Grand Valley, helped organize the event and provided the sound system. He said that Juneteenth is “like the Fourth of July for a lot of people. And even though we still have a lot of work to do, it was the first step in the right direction.”
Crespin said that while the Valley has come a long way in terms of accepting and embracing diversity, “the last six months have pretty much been the most change I have ever seen.”
“People still wake up every day and are reminded of what color their skin is,” he said. “And that’s an unfortunate reality that we hope to change, if not for us then our kids and our grandkids. We’re out here mostly for our future. When I leave this world, it’s going to be a little bit better than when I came into it.”
Elisa Love, who spoke of her family’s long and storied history in the region at the event and is a member of Black Citizens and Friends, is impressed with all that RAW has accomplished but is cautious about what to expect and what still needs to change. She noted the presence of the white agitator and Trump supporter who had attended the City Council meeting and who arrived at the park early and hovered nearby through the afternoon.
“I am here to celebrate Juneteenth in Grand Junction for the first time, which is super exciting,” she said. “We’re here, we’re peaceful, we’re celebrating. That’s what I don’t understand, is the need to try and intimidate, the need to try and force your views on other people when we’re just here to celebrate and bring attention to what Juneteenth is because a lot of people didn’t know.”
Ta’Lor Jackson, another local activist and RAW volunteer, is equally hopeful about the future but pragmatic about the work that remains ahead.
“The City Council of Grand Junction, the police department — all these different entities, I think, are all being drawn in today to make these statements, claiming that they’re willing to do the work. It’s institutional racism, so we have to start with their institutions. Overall, [Juneteenth] is a celebration but there’s still a lot of education that needs to be done.”
Tomorrow and in the days to come, the hard work begins again, but in the meantime, the holiday was enough reason to celebrate.
After the official proclamations and speeches wound down, and as the warm sun gave way to the coolness of the early evening, the crowd spread out across the lawn and, with the Grand Junction mayor and chief of police taking turns at the front of the line, kicked off the celebration with an exuberant group dance to the “Cupid Shuffle.”