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Juneteenth a moment to celebrate history, commemorate challenges and victories of last year, and keep up the fight

Kavon Ward will step onto Bruce’s Beach Park later this week for a celebration.

A celebration of Juneteenth, of Black history and Black culture. Of the gains, though incomplete, those fighting against systemic racism have made in the 365 days since Ward co-hosted the inaugural Juneteenth celebration at the Manhattan Beach park.

And of the history that could soon be made.

A year ago this Saturday, June 19, when Ward and about 50 others gathered at Bruce’s Beach Park to commemorate the day in 1865 when the last slaves learned of their freedom, finding something to celebrate wasn’t easy.

Less than a month before, a White Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, a Black man, by kneeling on his neck until he stopped breathing. The country was grappling with civil unrest and a reckoning of systemic racism on a scale not seen since the 1992 Los Angeles riots. And in Manhattan Beach, the history of Bruce’s Beach – of the original Black owners of a seaside resort, and how they and other African Americans were forced out of the city – was largely unknown.

Much has changed.

Former police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering Floyd. Police agencies and cities across Southern California and the nation have committed, to varying degrees, to enact reforms and pursue racial equity.

The descendants of the Bruce’s Beach owners are on the verge of reclaiming the two parcels on which the resort, by and for Black people, stood nearly a century ago.

And Juneteenth celebrations are set to occur throughout the region, from Riverside to Anaheim, from Long Beach to Santa Monica.

But these events won’t be just celebrations, organizers said – they will be a call to continue fighting to end systemic racism.

“People are becoming more conscious post-George Floyd’s murder of how Black people are being mistreated and marginalized,” said Ward, a reparative justice consultant for the Neighborhood Housing Services of L.A. County. “My vision (for the Manhattan Beach event) was to do something to commemorate the one year anniversary (of the Bruce’s Beach movement) to celebrate Juneteenth, the progress we’ve made and the history we’re about to make.”



Learning about their freedom

On June 19, 1865, word of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Galveston, Texas, and African Americans there learned they were no longer slaves.

President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation two years prior, using sly legal reasoning to free all slaves in Confederate states. But the news — in an age before the automobile, let alone electronic communication – didn’t arrive in Galveston until the Civil War was over. Lincoln had been assassinated two months earlier.

The day the former Galveston slaves cast off their chains became an African American holiday.

But for generations, the holiday was mostly overlooked in the mainstream, missing from large-scale conversations about American history that other holidays invoke – like July 4, just two weeks later.

“This is not our Independence Day,” Ward said of July 4. “In fact, you work hard to make sure I don’t know my Independence Day.”

Juneteenth is obscure no longer.

Congress has legislation pending that would make Juneteenth a federal holiday. California is considering a resolution to recognize Juneteenth. And Los Angeles last year began the process of declaring Juneteenth an official city holiday.

And dozens of celebrations are planned to take place throughout Southern California this week.

Leimert Park, in South Central Los Angeles, will hold a festival this weekend. A pop-up market featuring more than 60 Black vendors is set to take place on Blake Avenue, on the other side of the 5 Freeway from Dodger Stadium.

In Long Beach, a Juneteenth celebration is planned for Pine Avenue, in downtown, the beginning of what organizers say could become a grand regional event for years to come.

And the Segerstrom Center for the Arts is teaming with the Institute of Black Intellectual Innovation at Cal State Fullerton on a program at Argyros Plaza in Costa Mesa.

UC Riverside, meanwhile, will have a virtual celebration from June 15 to 18, featuring a “Messages of Freedom” video screening, a workshop on traditional Juneteenth cuisine, a panel discussion with parents on Black fatherhood and motherhood, a keynote address and breakout discussions.

Dozens of Juneteenth events are set to take place throughout Southern California this week. Several are scheduled for Orange County, including one at Santa Ana’s Centennial Regional Park. This file photo shows a Juneteenth event last year at Sasser Park in Santa Ana, with a woman laying a rose on a step in memory of George Floyd. (File photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

These events, on the whole, represent a growing recognition of Juneteenth and what it means, both historically and in the context of racial justice.

At least that’s the way Justin Verbiest, who is one of Ward’s fellow organizers planning the Bruce’s Beach event, sees it.

“After George Floyd was murdered, there’s been more information (shared) about what Juneteenth is, even though it’s not a national holiday,” said Verbiest, a Manhattan Beach resident who is White. “The whitewashing of history is so blatant.”

Long-standing traditions

Some communities, however, have long histories of celebrating Juneteenth.

Take, for example, Santa Ana.

The local NAACP chapter hosted Juneteenth gatherings at one or another park in that city for more than two decades beginning in 1990, some years attracting a couple of thousand people.

But even before that, Santa Ana, in Orange County, was known for informal Juneteenth events.

Santa Ana once had a close-knit Black community in its southwest corner, a neighborhood that became known as “Little Texas” because so many of the residents were originally from the Lone Star State.

Neighborhood celebrations in Santa Ana preceded sponsored Juneteenth events. But many of those families have moved to other parts of Orange County or to the Inland Empire.

Only about 20 Black families remain in what was the Little Texas area, said Dwayne Shipp, whose mother, Helen Shipp, was the founder of Orange County’s Black History Parade, which takes place in February; the parade had a three-year hiatus until the Orange County Heritage Council revived it in 2012.

This year, both Santa Ana and Anaheim will have Juneteenth celebrations.

The latter will take place from 2 to 6 p.m. at Anaheim Community Center Park and will mark the first time county dollars are being spent on a Juneteenth celebration, said LaShe Rodriguez, chief of staff for Orange County Supervisor Doug Chaffee, whose Fourth District includes Anaheim.

Rodriguez, who is Black and grew up annually celebrating Juneteenth “like clockwork” in Riverside County, brought that oversight to Chaffee’s attention.

“He thought it would be a good opportunity to bring the community together and unite us,” Rodriguez said, “and highlight this piece of African American history.”

Even though Orange County’s Black population of about 56,000 is small, “it has a longstanding history,” Rodriguez said. “A lot of the time, people don’t recognize that.”

The Heritage Council, meanwhile, will sponsor its own celebration from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Santa Ana’s Centennial Regional Park.

Speakers will include Daniel Michael Lynem, a leader of a Black Panther branch in Santa Ana during the 1960s. Lynem was part of a Juneteenth march and rally in Santa Ana last year to protest Floyd’s killing and other acts of police violence. Shipp also spoke at that gathering.

Shipp said he feels that celebrating Juneteenth in Santa Ana at Centennial Regional Park, where the Little Texas residents often spent time back in the day, carries more historical weight and community meaning than doing so in Anaheim.

“We’re still here,” Shipp said. “We’re still standing.”

Bruce’s Beach

But in some ways, the Bruce’s Beach gathering could prove the most significant.

When Ward, founder of Justice for Bruce’s Beach, and other South Bay activists held a celebration at the park last year, Juneteenth provided a natural peg to discuss the traumatic history of what many always saw as just a hilly park in Manhattan Beach — and reclaim the space for Black people in that city and beyond.

Bruce’s Beach will host its second annual Juneteenth event on Saturday, June 19, in Manhattan Beach. Last year’s event launched a movement to return land to the family of the original owners of a Black-owned seaside resort. This April 9 file photo shows Bruce family representative Chief Duane Yellowfeather Shepard speaks at a press conference in Manhattan Beach on Friday, April 9, 2021. The event was held to shed light on efforts by LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn to have the county begin to right the wrongs of the past and bring some justice to Charles and Willa Bruce’s descendants, returning the land of Bruce’s Beach to them. Currently a county lifeguard building sits on the land. (File photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

Willa and Charles Bruce, a Black married couple, ran a flourishing seaside resort in Manhattan Beach in the early 20th century. Bruce’s Beach Lodge was a haven for other Black people during a time when the African American community lacked access to the coast.

But they, as well as those who visited the resort and Manhattan Beach’s other African American residents, faced harassment from some White neighbors who didn’t want Black people in the community, according to historical records.

And then, in 1924, Manhattan Beach leadership condemned the Bruces’ land, as well as that of other Black property owners, and took it over through eminent domain.

The Bruce’s Beach Juneteenth event last year kicked off a movement in Manhattan Beach to try to make amends – with some efforts gaining national attention.

Manhattan Beach will commemorate the history of Bruce’s Beach on its website. An interactive art piece and two new plaques at the park will tell the comprehensive stories of the Bruce family and other Black families who were forced out of the city. And the City Council in early April condemned the actions of the town’s former leaders.

Amazon Prime is working on a series detailing the Bruces’ experiences, as well as similar stories of Black entrepreneurship in the early 20th century.

But the biggest initiative to date was spearheaded by state Sen. Steven Bradford and Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn.

Bradford, D-Gardena, authored a bill that will allow L.A. County to transfer the Bruces’ two parcels, which it currently owns, to family descendants.

“In 1912, Charles and Willa bought a piece of land with intentions of (living) the American dream,” Bradford said earlier this month. “They were robbed of their economic freedom.”

The state took over ownership of those two parcels from the city in 1948. The state eventually gave the land to the county, but prohibited it from giving the parcels away.

The state bill would change that. It’s already passed the Senate and will eventually get an Assembly vote.

County officials, for their part, are set to present a plan to the Board of Supervisors later this month about how to return the land – which has a lifeguard station on it – once they are allowed to do so.

“To think now we’re in the process” of returning the land a year later, Ward said, “it’s mind boggling.”

In some ways, Saturday’s Juneteenth event – organized by Ward, Verbiest, Allison Hales, Kytishea Lathan and Chiany Dri – will be similar to last year’s.

The event will highlight Black spiritualism, exultation and exuberance in the face of racism, Verbiest said. Guest speakers, a sound bath, a live acoustic reggae band, African dancers and spoken word poetry are scheduled as well.

And, like last year, there will be a call to action.

But this time, it’s about finishing the job.

The celebration “is also a call to action to make sure people remain in the legislative fight,” Ward said. “To remind folks the fight isn’t over yet and we still need them to show up and out and put pressure on the Assembly members.”

As for Juneteenth itself, well, the past year has pushed it further into national prominence. And for the Black community, Ward said, it carries even more significance.

Ward and her fellow organizers say they expect about 150 people to attend the Bruce’s Beach celebration – triple the number that attended last year.

“I do believe a lot of Black people, now that they know (about it),” Ward said, “they’ll make Juneteenth their Fourth of July.”

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Source: Orange County Register

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