26 years after start, St. Cloud's Juneteenth has grown into community celebration

People enjoy a Juneteenth celebration-3
Shavawn Crume, owner of Chevy's Pit, a St. Cloud catering business, serves up food to the crowd at St. Cloud's Juneteenth celebration on Friday.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Growing up in Austin, Texas, the Rev. James Alberts remembers marking Juneteenth with big, festive celebrations.

When he moved to St. Cloud 28 years ago, Juneteenth wasn't part of many people's awareness, so he and others decided to change that. The early Juneteenth events at St. Cloud's Riverside Park were modest.

“I think the first couple that we did, maybe 50 people showed up. We had one barbecue grill,” said Alberts, pastor of Higher Ground Church of God in Christ.

Now, that has changed. On Friday, next to Lake George near downtown St. Cloud, dozens of colorful tents covered the grassy field. Musicians played rock and jazz on a large stage. Barbeque grills sizzled as chefs competed in a grill-off.

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“We went from one venue, one small little park picnic area, to larger and larger and larger spaces,” Alberts said. “Now we're at kind of city center here, and are putting on this massive celebration that everybody has an opportunity to see.”

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Keshia King speaks in front of a crowd at St. Cloud's Juneteenth celebration near Lake George on Friday.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

The other thing that's changed, organizers say, is that more people know what the Juneteenth holiday means, and its significance marking the end of slavery in the United States.

Helping to raise that awareness is the fact that Juneteenth is now an official holiday in Minnesota. Alberts was at the state Capitol in February, when Gov. Tim Walz signed the bill making Minnesota the 26th state to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday.

Also at the signing was Buddy King, a St. Cloud nonprofit leader and youth pastor. He said attendance at St. Cloud's Juneteenth has steadily grown, with about 2,000 people expected to attend this year.

“The truth is now that it's a holiday — a national and a state-recognized holiday — that just gives it a little bit oomph, to really celebrate,” King said.

Friday's celebration featured many activities aimed at involving kids, including fishing at Lake George and a chance to make art. Organizers say there’s more interest among younger generations in learning about the history and relevance of Juneteenth.

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11-year-old Mason Weah of St. Cloud displays his painted face during St. Cloud's Juneteenth celebration Friday.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Jarrod Hall is a professor at St. Cloud State University and founder of Brothers and Sisters United International, a nonprofit that works with students to teach leadership and life skills. 

Hall was one of the early organizers of St. Cloud's Juneteenth. Since then, he's watched both the event and St. Cloud's population of color grow, along with interest in the history of the holiday.

“Younger people are starting to say hey, What is that? What do we know? What is that about?” Hall said. “Schools [don't] really get a chance to speak about it, because it's summertime. So it's good for the community to get out, and educate our young people in the community as well.”

In recent years, St. Cloud has tried to reconcile with slavery's role in its history. In 2017, the city named a new park on the Mississippi River after its first African American residents, Mary Butler and her son John, who were brought to St. Cloud as slaves in the 1850s.

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8-year-old Patrick Weah of St. Cloud draws a picture during the Juneteenth celebration. The event featured many activities aimed at involving kids, including opportunities to make art.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

As a history buff, St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis said he thinks it's important for the community's stories to be told, both good and bad.

“To understand where you come from, you need to know people’s stories,” he said. "I think it's critical in a community for people to get to know each other, and know the story of where they came from … the struggles and the challenges people had, and the successes and the opportunities that people have going forward.”

Organizers plan to keep growing the event every year and raising awareness of why Juneteenth matters in St. Cloud and across the U.S.

Every year, St. Cloud's Juneteenth gets a little closer to the celebrations Alberts remembers from back in Texas.

“You couldn't walk by anybody's barbecue pit, or anybody's table or anybody's picnic area, without being offered food, without being high-fived or congratulated – just ‘Happy Juneteenth’ all the way around,” he said. “Every year, we get closer and closer to that camaraderie, that brotherly sisterly love thing.”

Guests enjoy a Juneteenth celebration-3
Guests enjoy the festivities, including music and dance performances, at St. Cloud's Juneteenth celebration on Friday.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News