June 13, 2013 10:37:14 AM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
The Afro-American Culture Organization will host the 17th annual Juneteenth celebration at Sim Scott Park in Columbus this weekend.
A kick-off party at Master Host Inn is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. before proceedings move to Sim Scott Park Friday from 6-10 p.m. and continuing all day Saturday, beginning at noon.
A combination of the words "June" and "nineteenth," the festival is named after an American holiday that commemorates the abolition of slavery. On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger and his soldiers arrived on horseback in Galveston, Texas and delivered the message that slavery had been abolished.
"The whole idea of the festival is to bring people together in terms of fellowship and to promote the historical importance of Juneteenth in terms of it being a day of emancipation that started in Texas," festival founder and Lowndes County supervisor Leroy Brooks said. "Our idea in Columbus was just to provide a cultural activity that could bring people together, not just from Lowndes County but throughout the Southeast."
Brooks said despite this year's festival having one of the smallest budgets in the annual event's history in Columbus, the work of organizers to raise funds and the willingness of event fans to make donations helped ensure there would be another Juneteenth. Brooks anticipates crowds in excess of the estimated 12,000-13,000 that turned out for last year's festival.
Juneteenth board chair Cindy Lawrence echoed Brooks' prediction.
"This is one of the largest events we have in Columbus," Lawrence said. "We've had many calls from people in support for Juneteenth, so I expect a very large turnout."
In comparison to an estimated $20,000 budget in previous years, this year's was about $11,000, Brooks said, which necessitated some cost-cutting.
"Some of the people we've worked with have been gracious enough to scale back their entertainment costs. What we've normally done in the past (is) we've gotten two national blues acts but this year we've just gotten one," Brooks said. "We've managed to come up with the resources and in-kind services to have a real good festival."
In prior years, Juneteenth has received funding from the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau. The board first offered the festival a $15,000 tourism grant. Brooks rejected that grant in December based on rules that stipulated only 25 percent of the money could be used for entertainment. Brooks later applied for a quality of life grant, but that application was rejected.
Brooks subsequently asked the city council to help fund the event. The city granted $2,500 in city funding for the festival.
Brooks said if not for that contribution and other funds raised from businesses and private donations, Juneteenth would not have been possible this year.
"If we had not gotten the $2,500 from the city it would've been a question as to whether we would have had the festival because the donations seemingly had dried up," he said. "We were at that crucial point where we had nowhere else to go, so we went to the city. Being the first year we've had to raise money from scratch, it's been kind of an experience for me because some of the businesses that I've never had any dealing with, people I didn't know, they were gracious enough to donate. Other businesses I did know did not respond. There were individuals who walked up to me and (offered) $100 or $25 because (they) really thought the festival was worthwhile and thought it got the shaft."
Brooks said in the future, the event will likely need more funding to survive.
"If I had to raise money from scratch another year I would not do it because you go through that whole stress component when there's the CVB over there with money," he said. "I hope they go back, look at their guidelines and be fair and equitable because by and large, Juneteenth will probably be the second largest activity they fund in this community aside from Market Street."
Musical entertainment on Saturday will include DJ Lovebone, Lil Kiki, Lil McKenzie and The Dirty Mouth Boys. On Sunday, headliner and blues artist Steve Perry will take the stage, as will The Mighty Voices, The Crowns of Joys, SWISBOI, The Crossroad Band and The Real Brown Sugar.
Brooks said he and fellow event organizers have received positive responses from the community for continuing to hold Juneteenth each year.
"I think one of the reasons it's going to generate such a big turnout is people were fearful at one point they wouldn't have it, so I think they're going to come out and support it," he said.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.