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Juneteeth celebrates end of slavery

Portland festival carries on tradition started by local founder Clara Peoples

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: BIANCA PAHL - Clara Peoples' niece Doris Rush (left), discusses plans for this year's Juneteenth celebration with Peoples' granddaughter Jenelle Jack and Heather Baker, (right). Peoples passed away last year but the celebration she launched here in 1945 will continue. Clara Peoples won’t be in attendance at this year’s Juneteenth celebration in Portland, for the first time since she brought the commemoration to the city back in 1945.

Peoples died in October 2015, but her family and community members will carry on the celebration in her memory while creating new traditions and memories in honor of Juneteenth and Peoples. 

Juneteenth commemorates the day slavery ended in the United States. On June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with news that the war had ended and the enslaved were now free.

“Juneteenth promotes universal freedom,” says Doris Rush, Peoples’ niece and head of the Juneteenth committee. “Her goal was to educate the community and spread awareness.” 

Juneteenth is celebrated worldwide. But in 1945, when Peoples moved to Portland from Muskogee, Okla., she was surprised to find out her new home did not celebrate a defining moment in history. So she decided to start the annual celebration in Portland. It wasn’t until 1972 that the event gained citywide recognition. 

“Bridge the Gap” is the theme of this year’s Juneteenth celebration. It symbolizes bridging the information gap, Rush says. The day is full of activities for all ages. There will be a parade, vendors, speakers, musical performances and other entertainment at Legacy Emanuel Field on June 18.

The Rev. Dr. Ronald Myers, president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, named Peoples the national “Mother of Juneteenth” in 2011. She received a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award from the Portland Spirit Awards last November.

As a young girl, committee member Heather Baker remembers Peoples looking out for others by providing families in need with food. 

“If you were on hard times you could go to her house and she would take care of you,” Baker says. 

Peoples handed over the responsibilities of Juneteenth to Rush in 2006. Peoples’ granddaughter Jenelle Jack subsequently joined the committee, along with community members who knew Peoples and all that she did for them. 

Jack says she remembers her grandmother for her strength, sense of humor and her kind heart.

“She would drive around in her blue Plymouth with bread, doughnuts, cakes and candy and distribute it to the kids in the community,” Jack says.

Juneteenth is typically a three-day celebration. Rush and the committee said they would like to eventually expand the event to three days but understand that will take time.

They are aiming for at least two days next year. In the more distant future, the committee hopes to pursue a dream Peoples always had, to host it on the waterfront.

If you go

What: Juneteenth

Where: Legacy Emanuel Medical Center field at North Russell Street between Williams Avenue and Vancouver Avenue.

When: June 18, 10:45 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Details: The parade will start the day at Northeast Jarrett Street and Eight Avenue at 10:45 a.m. and end at 12 p.m. at Legacy Emanuel field. After the parade, the program will start with a prayer followed by the singing of the Black American National Anthem and reading of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. There also will be food vendors, speakers, entertainers, musicians and children’s activities.