‘It’s a momentous event’: Santa Cruz Juneteenth celebrates 30 years — and a new national holiday

Scenes from the 2021 Juneteenth celebration at Santa Cruz's London Nelson Community Center
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz Juneteenth organizers are feeling the momentum of the historic Juneteenth last year — when it was declared a national holiday — and are looking forward to another milestone: 30 years celebrating it in Santa Cruz. 

It’s been 30 years since Raymond Evans hosted the first Santa Cruz Juneteenth celebrations.

Since then, it has grown from his thoughtful, independently produced single event at London Nelson Community Center to this year’s two-day celebrations, planned by a committee of about 10 members.

Siblings David Claytor and Ana Elizabeth, founders of events company SureThing Productions, took over managing Juneteenth after Evans retired from hosting celebrations about 23 years ago. They jointly plan the event each year with the City of Santa Cruz and London Nelson Community Center staff and community members.

Elizabeth says that as a Black American, Juneteenth is a momentous event.

“It’s a time for me to reflect on how far we’ve come and what freedom actually means and looks like, to me personally, to our community, to my Black brothers and sisters, and what does freedom look like in the 21st century,” Elizabeth said. “And how can we expand it and make it more solid? The world is very precarious right now.”

Juneteenth commemorates the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned that they had been freed. The Union army brought the news to Galveston — two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863. Although enslaved people were free “on paper” the day it went into effect, Juneteenth has long represented for many people the real end of slavery in the United States.

Initially recognized in Texas in 1980, the holiday spread across the country over time, and last year President Joe Biden recognized it as a federal holiday. While its recognition as a federal holiday has been celebrated for bringing it to the attention of more Americans, many point to the persistent systemic racism that continues to disproportionately harm Black Americans.

“There’s still so much work to be done,” Elizabeth said. “It’s a time of reflection.”

Reflection and celebration. A time, she says, for the Santa Cruz community to come together in a joyful space.

Juneteenth attendees this year will see some familiar faces. Black Surf Santa Cruz founder Esabella Bonner will host the second annual Black Liberation Paddle Out. She also serves on the Juneteenth committee.

“I’m super stoked for this weekend,” Bonner said. “I’m just brimming with joy and excitement to build on what Ana and the committee has created with this event for the last 30 years.”

Bonner says about 50 to 60 Black folks paddled out last year, and she’s estimating that about 100 to 200 people will Sunday. Growth at the event has mirrored growth for her club, which just received nonprofit status this week and has doubled in membership in the past year, up to about 180 members.

Black Surf Santa Cruz focuses on promoting community wellness through surf. It provides free surf pop-up lessons for members and hosts educational events on the history of surfing.

“We’re really just trying to give people a space to see themselves represented in the water at the end of the day,” Bonner said.

Scenes from the 2021 Juneteenth celebration at Santa Cruz's London Nelson Community Center
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz Juneteenth events


Saturday

Events start Saturday with a meditation and hike from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. at Wilder Ranch, located at 1401 Coast Rd. in Santa Cruz. The main celebration follows the hike.

This year’s annual Juneteenth celebration takes place from noon to 4 p.m. at the London Nelson Community Center, located at 301 Center St. in Santa Cruz. The event will include music, soul food, craft booths, kids activities, a sack race and a basketball skills contest.

Sunday

On Sunday from noon to 4 p.m., Black Surf Santa Cruz hosts its second annual paddle-out at Cowell Beach. The event will include a beach cleanup, a live DJ on the beach, paddle-out with lessons and free equipment for Black Surf Santa Cruz members. To register, click here.