By Antonio R. Harvey | Observer Staff Writer

Local Juneteenth Festival organizer Gary Simon has been working diligently for the last few months to reignite the celebration in a social setting. With California opening up a few days before the June 19 event, Simon’s vision became reality.

About 3,000 people attended the 18th annual Juneteenth Inc. Festival at William Land Park, and the phrase “just happy to be seen” was used constantly and with genuine gratitude throughout the day. 

Simon told The OBSERVER that the day-long event “was a good Sacramento celebration from the logistical and event-planner standpoint.” But the feeling of being “among our people in person” was a “passionate moment,” he said.

“The sentiment and the vibe was great because, first of all, people were ready to be out. Secondly, the designation of Juneteenth as a national holiday was a historical moment in itself,” said Simon, the founder and director of the summer event. “That combination, with people ready to emerge from COVID-19 guidelines and people wanting to be outside among each other, were positive vibes. Overall, people just wanted to be seen.”

More than 80 vendors participated in the festival that was designed under the theme, “Getting Serious About Our Health.” Juneteenth Inc. partnered with the Sierra Health Foundation to address Black health issues revealed by the  COVID-19 pandemic. 

One of the first large events to have taken place in Sacramento’s Black community since the pandemic, the celebration also addressed how the community was affected by sheltering in place, wearing face masks and social distancing.

“The health message was on time and effective,” Simon said. “COVID-19 has revealed that the Black and brown communities are not getting the health care that they should be getting. A lot of Black and brown people died of the virus because of preexisting conditions. The preexisting conditions shouldn’t be existing at this point if the disparities were not there.”

Many of the people in attendance were pleased with the event in the park, the information that was supplied by various local organizations, and the on-site vaccinations offered by Sutter Health.  Resources for mental health issues, feelings of isolation, depression, suicide and anxiety were also addressed at the celebration.

“It was good to be among the people on Juneteenth after months of inactivity,” local resident Gary Maryland said of his experience at the Juneteenth festival. “I also like the information that was distributed at the event. I really tried to see what was available.”

Sponsors of the festival included the Black Child Legacy Campaign, City of Sacramento Office of Economic Development, Kings and Queens Rise, SMUD, Roberts Family Development Center and Visit Sacramento.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and City Councilmembers Angelique Ashby (District 1), Katie Valenezuela (District 4), Mai Vang (District 8), and Rick Jennings (District 7) joined Simon on stage to celebrate the holiday.  

Other supporters of the event were elated how the annual celebration enlightened all the people that attended what was also a scorching day at William Land Park.

“The Juneteenth celebration … was lovely in spite of the balmy 102 degree weather,” said Azizza Davis Goines, the CEO and president of the Sacramento Black Chamber of Commerce. “Congratulations Gary Simon and team. Welcome back.”

The Sacramento Juneteenth, Inc. (SJI), is an educational and health-wellness organization that has produced Sacramento’s annual Juneteenth Festival for the past 18 years.  

Juneteenth is the national celebration that recognizes the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. The proclamation declared that all those enslaved were freed. 

Juneteenth celebrates the freedom of those enslaved in the United States of America, the last of whom were liberated in Texas on June 19, 1865 — two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Juneteenth has been celebrated in the Black Community for 156 years across the country. The festival here in Sacramento is approaching two decades of activities and raising awareness of the historical moment.

In post-COVID and after other social justice events that  have taken place in the last 15 months, Juneteenth’s profile and the story of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Okla., reached national attention outside of the Black community.

Simon also credits President Joe Biden’s signing on June 16 to make Juneteenth a federal holiday helpful in educating the world the significance of Black people’s real independence day.

“I think that the federal government recognizing Juneteenth period and turning it into a national holiday is historical for us,” Simon said. “(This holiday) was well-needed within the Black community.”