Santa Barbara Celebrates Juneteenth 2022
Joy of Black Culture to Shine at Weekend Festivities Across County
By Jean Yamamura | June 16, 2022
It’s good to be outdoors together again, and Juneteenth festivities in Santa Barbara County celebrate a welcome freedom of many varieties this coming weekend in Lompoc, Solvang, and Santa Barbara — but primarily the freedom of Black slaves in the South during the American Civil War.
Solvang’s Juneteenth evolved more recently, however, because Madi Wilson wanted to make a speech at the barbecue her mother was planning. “Madi’s quite confident in what she wants to do,” said her mother, Vashti Wilson, with an equal touch of pride and exasperation. Wilson was hosting a Juneteenth party that year with their friends and family, but in the early days of the pandemic, the idea of an outdoor gathering snowballed on Wilson’s Facebook page. Dozens of friends, families, and acquaintances showed up to Solvang Park and brought their children, many of them Madi’s schoolmates. Madi was 7 years old at the time.
In conversation, Madi speaks with the earnestness of the very young, and she has tackled weighty problems with a perky determination that can only come from the complete support her mother gives her. Earlier in the year, Wilson had noticed that Madi and her friends created their video game avatars with ice-blue eyes and long blonde hair. Wilson, who retired early from the Air Force as an Afghanistan combat veteran, asked Madi’s teacher if she could talk to the 2nd-grade class about Black hair textures and styles, and African folklore and instruments. Her visit made an impression.
Madi began to notice the minor role of Black actors in the movies she saw. More personally, her set of crayons didn’t have enough shades to make an accurate picture of herself. By then, she already understood the uses of a GoFundMe campaign, having used one to raise money to buy books about Juneteenth for her school. With her mother — who has an MBA from Ole Miss and has pursued her own entrepreneurial endeavors — she created Madi’s Treasure Box, which sells her World Changer crayons in 24 eye colors and skin tones. The colors have names like Midnight Star, Sand Castle, and Brownie Points. “She came up with those names herself,” her mother said, laughing in awe of her own child’s precocity.
Madi is 9 now and planning to make a speech at this year’s festivities, which take place on Saturday, June 18. Juneteenth in the Santa Ynez Valley has grown in the past couple of years but is still very kid-oriented, adding a visit from Princess Tiana, a bouncy castle, craft stations, books from the Solvang library with African-American themes, barbecue delivery to the park from High on the Hog — you have to preorder at juneteenthsyv.com this year — and 30 special packages from Iris Rideau, a noted Santa Ynez Valley vintner who just published her memoirs.
Taking place in the late afternoon after the heat of the day has begun to pass, the fest at Solvang Park features a special guest: Sojourner Kincaid Rolle. The onetime Poet Laureate for the City of Santa Barbara published an illustrated children’s book of her poem “Free at Last” in May — which Madi Wilson will read — a poem Kincaid Rolle wrote in the early 2000s to lend a wider understanding of Juneteenth.
Kincaid Rolle will be reading from her new book at the Juneteenth celebration in Santa Barbara, as well, which is on Sunday, June 19. It’s taking the form of a block party on Gray Avenue in the Funk Zone — anchored by Shalhoob’s patio where the essential-to-Juneteenth barbecue takes place, including sharing a meal with about 200 attendees — live performances, Princess Tiana, and the Black and African-American artisan market. This is the fifth and largest festivity that organizers Jordan Killebrew, Simone Ruskamp, and Chiany Dri have put together since the first one at El Centro on the lower Westside. “It was a small, beautiful hangout,” remembered Killebrew, for which they spent their own money, making food together for everyone.
The larger event is in part due to the backup provided by Leeandra Shalhoob, Kincaid Rolle, Krystle Farmer Sieghart, Leticia Forney Resch, and many others. It’s also due to a $35,000 grant from the City of Santa Barbara to help underwrite expenses, thanks to a demand from Ruskamp through Healing Justice Santa Barbara.
“Being Black in itself is political,” Ruskamp explained, taking the issue back to 1865, when General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston to let Texans know that President Lincoln had freed the slaves two and a half years earlier. The spontaneous celebration that broke out, now called Juneteenth, however, was followed by the directive from Granger that the newly freed individuals remain working on the plantations and avoid “indolence,” Ruskamp said.
Ruskamp and Sieghart had organized a large march in Santa Barbara to protest the murder of George Floyd, which occurred in plain view of the world in May 2020. Ruskamp, who graduated from UCSB in political science and is now finalizing her master’s in social work at Howard, became acutely aware of Santa Barbara’s budget amount for Fiesta. “Why celebrate made-up holidays when we have a traditional, liberatory holiday of real people exercising and seeking freedom?” She said she was hoping for $5,000, maybe $10,000, and was thankful for the public that came out to support them, encouraging the council to do the “beautiful thing of investing in communities of color.”
Sojourner Kincaid Rolle is from North Carolina and said she learned about Juneteenth from friends who invited her to their parties. She delved deeply into Juneteenth’s history before writing “Free at Last,” and she calls Juneteenth a symbolic holiday. “Slavery didn’t technically end until the 13th Amendment passed in December of 1865,” she noted.
When President Lincoln wrote his Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, the Civil War was a bloody two-year slog, leaving cities in ruin, thousands dead and wounded, and the cotton harvest stuck in ports. The proclamation claimed freedom for the enslaved people held in the rebellious Southern states on the first day of 1863. “The Emancipation Proclamation only affected the Southern states,” Kincaid Rolle noted. “It was not universal freedom.” Four border states — Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri — kept African Americans in bondage until the 13th Amendment passed, because they were Union states.
Juneteenth has its origins in Texas, a Confederate state that sent troops and horses east of the Mississippi into battle. When General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Virginia troops at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, Confederate forces in the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Texas refused to comply until May. In fact, the final skirmish of the Civil War took place on May 12 near Brownsville, Texas. Though rebel troops actually won that battle, it was the last one of a war they had lost.
That the war had ended was not information that was shared around the plantations. It wasn’t until 2,000 federal troops arrived in Galveston with General Gordon Granger that freedom was announced in Texas on June 19, 1865. The joy among the newly freed individuals has echoed to this day in the Juneteenth celebrations around the nation. As African-American men, women, and families migrated away from the South — largely to seek opportunities and also escape racial violence and segregation — they took Juneteenth with them.
Connie Alexander’s grandparents were from Texas, and she said she’s always grown up with Juneteenth. “People who celebrated tended to be from Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma. My grandmother and her friends brought out their great Texas recipes, and they’d all share the stories of what they’d been told. It was our Freedom Day, and it was just the time to celebrate.”
Alexander co-owns Gateway Educational Services with Audrey Gamble, and they’ll be holding down a booth — along with artisans and other Black-owned businesses — at the Santa Barbara Juneteenth block party to spread the word of their no- and low-cost tutoring services to what Alexander calls their global village. “The moms in our lobby speak Vietnamese, Spanish, English,” said Alexander, while others are guardians for children who are unaccompanied minors. “Many of our tutors from UCSB are first-generation college students, some with the same story,” she added. “We see a great need for access and equity, academic support, and help understanding the school system here.”
The post-George Floyd era, coinciding with COVID restrictions, made Alexander realize they needed to focus on Black students and all students who needed extra help with tutoring or just understanding. It also prompted a group to revive the Santa Barbara chapter of the NAACP, for which Alexander is president, Rev. Dave Moore vice president, and Gamble secretary. “Typically, if people need help, need support, we are here,” Alexander said. “We do work in employment and discrimination cases, housing issues, and even discrimination in education in some ways. Anyone can join who cares about the fight for justice and freedom and is supportive of the African-American community and people of color.”
It’s the work the NAACP in Lompoc-Santa Maria has been engaged in since 1974, as well as fundraising, holding Black History month and Martin Luther King Jr. events, and scrambling to put on its own Juneteenth celebration when it became a national holiday in 2021. Organizer-in-chief Lawanda Lyons-Pruitt described the event to be held at Ryon Park as a “little bit of everything,” including a talk by Brooke Russell, the first Black woman to earn a PhD in physics from Yale. Now at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, Russell’s specialty is neutrinos, and she’s formed the Yale League of Black Scientists with Lyndsey McMillon-Brown of NASA in her spare time. As well as lessons in particle physics, Lompoc’s fete will feature card games, dominoes, the Lompoc Library bookmobile, music, dancing, and short theatrical vignettes.
Juneteenth on Gray Avenue is not the only outcome of the demands made by Healing Justice — a group Simone Ruskamp founded with Krystle Farmer Sieghart. In fact, the setting makes for a return home for the Black community in a sense. The city also agreed to underwrite a historical survey of Black landmarks, which are mostly contained along the Haley corridor, where restaurants, nightclubs, markets, and homes formed the neighborhoods between Cabrillo Boulevard and Cota Street before Highway 101 split the area in two.
Because of the once commonly accepted practice of White-only redlining of real estate, few African-American residents lived along State Street, above Cota Street, or on the Westside, even into the 1960s. Much of the Black population settled in what is now called the Funk Zone, a swampy area near railroad tracks, with a canal, now Olive Street, draining to the sea. “Canal Street was a great big ditch,” Kincaid Rolle described, “and Black people could get land there. They were relegated to where they could own or rent property.”
The Healing Justice team has been diving into the special collection archives at UCSB, along with consultant Flora Chou of Page & Turnbull and the city’s urban historian, Nicole Hernandez. With Kincaid Rolle, they’ve looked at more than 100 years of the history of Black lives in the preparation of a soon-to-be-released historical context statement by the city. Already the stately St. Paul AME Church on Olive Street received landmark status in 2020, and the original Second Baptist Church on Gutierrez Street, once home to the Church of Skatan skateboard shop, was declared a “structure of merit” in 2021.
Ruskamp mentioned one gem among many that the researchers have disinterred from Juneteenth’s past: “They found an article about a huge cookout held at Oak Park back in the day,” Ruskamp marveled. “It was in the ’30s or ’40s, and they invited anyone to come and have a free meal.” The Juneteenth organizers have the same intentions this year, she said, and hoped to share the food with as many as they could.
Left: Lincoln School was at the corner of Cota and Santa Barbara streets, now home to the Saturday Farmers Market until it becomes city police headquarters. | Credit: S.B. Unified School District; Right: Lincoln School was unsegregated, as this 2nd grade “Home Unit” demonstrated in 1936. | Credit: Collection, Community Development and Conservation Collection; Department of Special Collections, Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara
A historical overview of the research to date was mounted at the Melanin Gallery earlier this year — another Healing Justice project, one that is still looking for a new home — stemming from the photographs and stories they had gathered. And the city’s history project will have a booth at Juneteenth to which families are invited to bring photographs or stories to fill out the archive of Santa Barbara’s past and its people of color.
Back in 2020, Madison Wilson told the small crowd at Solvang Park that she “wanted to see everyone in the community loving and supporting one another.” Vashti Wilson could only agree. “During Black history month, they often teach of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, but he was assassinated, and she was put in jail. We don’t want to adopt a history that is only trauma,” she said. Juneteenth was that opportunity for the beauty of Black culture to shine: “It’s how we make progress. It’s a light in that dark.”
Santa Barbara County will celebrate Juneteenth Saturday-Sunday, June 18-19, with festivities on Saturday at Ryon Park in Lompoc, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., and Solvang Park, 4-7 p.m. On Sunday in Santa Barbara, the “Caring for the People” Free Block Party takes place on Gray Avenue, noon-5 p.m.; and the Juneteenth Jubilee Day at Soul Bites on State Street, noon-9 p.m. For more info, see juneteenthsb.org.