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Springfield Celebrates Juneteeth And Kicks Off Its’ First 217 Black Restaurant Weekend

Olivia Mitchell
NPR Illinois

Over the weekend, Springfield celebrated Juneteenth with a parade, rally and its first 217 Black Restaurant Weekend.

The annual celebration is usually held at Comer Cox Park, but due to restrictions on large gatherings because of COVID-19, organizers planned a parade instead.

“I think we need to bring awareness to what Juneteenth means to the younger generation,” said Shymeka Kerr-Gregory. She coordinated the celebration for three years and is now executive director of Springfield Illinois Juneteenth.

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NPR Illinois
Participants in the Juneteenth Parade in Springfield, Ill. on June 20, 2020.

“But also celebrating the freedom, the rights we still have now, and the rights that we’re still owed,” Gregory said.

June 19, also known as Juneteenth, is an annual commemoration of the day in 1865 that Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to tell enslaved people that they had been freed - over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.

Gregory said it’s time the date be recognized as a national holiday.

“It needs to be recognized as well as Columbus Day, the other holidays that we get off for state holidays, and school,” Gregory said. “Juneteenth is just as important.”

Members of the Capital City Dance Team in white t-shirts, red shorts, and big red ribbons in their hair danced their way down Capitol Avenue Saturday morning, while cars followed along in procession all the way to the Statehouse.

City officials and community leaders talked about the day’s significance in front of the Abraham Lincoln statue at the Capitol, while Brittany Burton stood in the shade nearby.

Burton, a journalist and entertainment publicist, reflected on a part of her family’s history in another significant moment - the 1908 Springfield Race Riots.

“I had a family member that was taken from his business, his body was ridiculed with bullets, and he was hung on the tree alive, burned, and lynched,” Burton said. “So it’s very scary to think in 2020, I have to worry about what happened in 1908.”

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NPR Illinois
Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory speaks to the crowd about the significance of the Juneteenth celebration in front of the Capitol Building in Springfield, Ill.

The riots led to the formation of the NAACP.

As demonstrators continue to take to the streets in Springfield and across the country to protest racial inequality and police brutality, Burton said the mood of this year's Juneteenth celebration is different from previous years.

“One thing that I do see is more unity in the world, not just in this city, it’s everywhere,” she said. “More people are aware, so there are bigger turnouts, more support of Black businesses, Black franchises, Black entrepreneurs, and things of that nature.”

A few hours later, another nearly 200 people gathered on Adams Street in downtown Springfield to celebrate the culture and food of Black-owned restaurants.

Nickey’s Southern Style Kitchen is one of them. Nickey Alexander, the owner, cooks smothered pork chops, greens, sweet potatoes, and a variety of other soul foods.

She was happy for the weekend to bring attention to her and other restaurants, especially as the industry has struggled during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s trying sometimes, but even through the pandemic, I’m still standing,” Alexander said.

Alexander said her cooking has the ability to change lives, and that her talent was a gift from God that she will always be grateful for.

“I have people from all ethnic backgrounds that come and see me and they enjoy their food, and it helps them embark on memories that they’ve probably forgotten,” she said.

Also participating in Black Restaurant Weekend was Jerk Shop Go, a new restaurant that sells Carribean style jerk food like nachos, fries, and more. Elizabeth Wake stood in the large crowd outside the restaurant on Saturday afternoon waiting for her food.

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NPR Illinois
Customers wait outside of Jerk Shop Go in downtown Springfield, Ill. for the kick off of the town's first 217 Black Restaurant Weekend on June 20, 2020.

“I think the quality of the food is excellent,” Wake said. “It’s really exciting for me to be able to support those Black-owned businesses.”

Wake is a former teacher at St. Patrick's School in Springfield and she said she learned about Juneteenth only three years ago.

“As the majority of my students at St. Patricks are Black, I realized that I had learned a very whitewashed history in my upbringing, and I wanted to be a lot better about that in the future.”

Wake said Juneteenth should be added to the regular curriculum so all students can learn about the holiday and what it represents.

Dominic Watson is president of the Springfield Black Chamber of Commerce, which organized 217 Black Restaurant Weekend.

“Our goal is to expose these restaurants to the greater Springfield population as well as get the greater Springfield population to support them year round,” Watson said.

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NPR Illinois
President of the Black Chamber of Commerce, Dominic Watson thanks the crowd for participating in Springfield's first 217 Black Restaurant Weekend.

Watson said he wants to help others because he knows how it feels to be a black business owner in Springfield. In 2006, he started his own event planning company, but he said it was a struggle. He hopes the interest generated this weekend will last.

“Juneteenth is a singular holiday, but the Black community needs allies and support all year round and that includes the Black business community,” Watson said.

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