In the 28th year of its Memphis celebration, Juneteenth this year will be celebrated in a park that was once dedicated to the memory of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a former grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.
“I felt that in this year, the first year that the state, city and county are recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday, the festival is especially significant,” said Telisa Franklin, Memphis Juneteenth organizer.
“I needed to move it from Robert R. Church Park, and I was looking around. The Lord kept bringing me back to Health Sciences Park (formerly Forrest Park), a park where Black people (at one time) couldn’t even walk when it was established,” Franklin said.
Juneteenth 2021 is slated for Friday through Sunday, June 18-20. The festival is celebrated all over the country as a time chosen to commemorate a day of liberation for slaves.
“This is a time when we celebrate our ancestors’ freedom,” said Franklin. “Having the event in the park formerly named for Nathan Bedford Forrest is significant. The vestiges of this white supremacist and all he stood for is being removed forever.
“This ground is being reclaimed for African-American people. It will be a healing place.”
Franklin said she watched with extreme sadness the events that occurred in Health Sciences Park as Shelby County Commissioner and community activist Tami Sawyer was verbally assaulted by a man on the premises helping to remove the empty monument pedestal, which once supported a statue of Forrest, under which Forrest and his wife are buried.
Sawyer pressed charges and a warrant was issued for the arrest of George “K-Rack” Johnson, charging him with misdemeanor assault in connection with the incident.
“I was saddened to see what happened in the park with Commissioner Sawyer last week,” said Franklin.
“It is fitting that Juneteenth will be celebrated in this park. We will consecrate those same grounds as we celebrate a joyous time, even as former slaves celebrated freedom, a dawning of a new day for our people.”
Franklin took over the Juneteenth organization in 2013 from the founder of Memphis’ festival Glynn Johns Reed.
Both Reed and Franklin grew up in the Douglass Community. Every year for two decades, the festival was held in Douglass Park.
Reed, who also was publisher of the Black Pages Magazine, returned home to New Orleans, where she died from extended illness in 2014.
Reed asked Franklin to keep the festival in their beloved Douglass Park for one last time in 2014.
Franklin’s vision was to broaden the scope of Juneteenth and to raise the festival’s profile in Memphis.
“I think Ms. Reed saw how I was conducting my other businesses,” said Franklin. “She wanted the festival to thrive and to flourish, so it was appropriate that Juneteenth be moved.
“We moved it to Church Park (between Beale and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue), named for the first African-American millionaire in the South.
“Years prior to the move in 2014, Ms. Reed placed a time capsule at Church Park, not to be opened for 100 years. It was fitting that we move to Church Park at that time.”
Now, in this 28th year, Juneteenth in Memphis is moving to a park that, since 1904, was the resting place of Confederate Gen. Forrest and his wife. They were moved from Elmwood Cemetery with great pomp and ceremony. The equestrian monument was set on it pedestal and dedicated in 1905.
City parks and other designated places were off-limits to African-American people, many of them former slaves.
Sawyer and others were instrumental in galvanizing public support to have the Forrest statue removed in December 2017. Both the statue and Forrest’s remains will be relocated to Columbia, Tennessee, where the national headquarters for the Sons of Confederate Veterans is located.
“Douglass Park is our past, Church Park is considered our present, and Health Sciences Park is our future,” said Franklin.
“Out of the shadows of the Douglass Community, Juneteenth is being recognized as a state holiday. We expect a record number of attendees this year.”
State Rep. Antonio Parkinson introduced legislation last year making Juneteenth an official holiday in Tennessee. It was signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee.
“It was a hard sell because conversations around race are hard in the Tennessee legislature,” said Parkinson.
“But they must be had. It is vitally important that our country, our people and our state recognize and remember the atrocities of slavery committed against our people. We must celebrate the day of freedom for the former slaves all over the state.”
Juneteenth commemorates the announcement that slavery had been abolished. It was established in Texas on June 19, 1865, two-and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.