There were plenty of pleasantries to see, hear, feel, taste, touch and smell at the Juneteenth Urban Music Festival 2021 in Health Sciences Park. (Photo: Shirley Jackson)

by Sydney Jones —

Families, friends and some who journeyed alone enjoyed Black musical artists and took a deeper look into African customs while enjoying some of the best food trucks the city has to offer at the first Juneteenth Urban Music Festival held in Health Sciences Park in the Medical District on Saturday.

A cordoned-off area around a plaza that is being deconstructed served as a reminder that the site of the festival previously was known as Nathan Bedford Forest Park. The plaza is where an equestrian statue of the former Confederate cavalry general, slave trader and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard once stood, and where Forrest and his wife, until recently, were buried.

Juneteenth was born as a celebration of Black Union soldiers delivering news (June 19, 1865) in Galveston, Texas of the Emancipation Proclamation freeing enslaved people in the South and Southwest. Saturday’s celebration in Memphis followed President Joe Biden’s signing of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, which two days earlier made Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Attendees young and old clearly were ready to celebrate the holiday, Black culture and have fun.

The entertainment showcased young people stepping into the future. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

The festival featured live entertainment and a variety of vendors and food trucks, including fan-favorites such as Parker’s Water Ice and others that introduced and served crepes, rare herbs and spices, and much more.

One of the most exciting parts of the Urban Music Festival was seeing the youth, who made ample use of a kids zone, also take notable interest in learning about African traditions and customs. They were able to explore that cultural aspect at different vendor stations, where vendors happily shared insight on African drums, statues, art and other artifacts on display.

“It’s really nice to be out here celebrating this holiday with other people that look like you,” said one of the festival attendees.

Attorney Van Turner Jr., director/president of Memphis Greenspace and a Shelby County Commissioner, talks to the Juneteenth Urban Music Festival crowd at the invitation of Telisa Franklin, the festival organizer. (Photo: Shirley Jackson)

TSD Associate Publisher/Executive Editor Karanja A. Ajanaku talks with Memphis Greenspace Director/President Van Turner Jr. about the Juneteenth Urban Music Festival and the future of Health Sciences Park. (Photo: Shirley Jackson)

Many of the festival’s attendees compared the community event to a family reunion. “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” better known as the Black National Anthem, was sung with a unifying reverence.

“I’m paying tributes to Ms. Opal Lee from here since I can’t be in Fort Worth, where I’m from, by allowing people to come make videos sending her a thank you message,” said attendee, Don Mooney.

Lee, 94 and known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” fought fiercely for the national holiday, once walking 1,400 miles and netting 1.6 million signatures on a petition delivered to President Barack Obama. Lee, who lives in Fort Worth, was in Washington, D.C. when President Biden signed the bill making Juneteenth a public holiday and talked with him afterwards.

Minister Suhkara A. Yahweh (left), familiar to many as Lance Watson (“Sweet Willie Wine”) when co-founding The Invaders as the civil rights movement unfolded in Memphis; and James Deke Pope, second president of the Black Student Association at then-Memphis State University (University of Memphis), enter Health Sciences Park after attending a Juneteenth observance on the campus of LeMoyne-Owen College. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

In Memphis, as people strolled the Juneteenth Urban Music Festival, sat on the grass, enjoyed entertainment and stood in line for turkey legs, there were numerous expressions of gratitude for the opportunity to honor those who struggled mightily for the freedom of Black people and the securing of their civil rights – an ongoing mission.

(Sydney Jones, who is on track as a May 2023 graduate of Clark Atlanta University, is a summer intern at The New Tri-State Defender.)