Sunday's Juneteenth events
Sunday’s Juneteenth events will focus around repainting the Black Lives Matter mural on Center Street in front of Santa Cruz City Hall.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

With ‘new voices’ front and center, Santa Cruz Juneteenth plots out celebratory weekend

With a Saturday gathering next door to the just-renamed London Nelson Community Center, a Sunday event centered on repainting the Black Lives Matter mural in front of Santa Cruz City Hall and COVID restrictions mostly lifted, organizers have a full slate for the holiday commemorating the end of slavery.

There’s a new reason to celebrate Juneteenth a little extra this year: On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution to establish June 19th as a national holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States, bringing it closer to law.

Juneteenth, which marks the day in 1865 when the Union army brought word to enslaved persons in Galveston, Texas, that they had been freed, will have added resonance locally, too.

The decades-old misspelling on signage and sites honoring freed slave London Nelson, who lived the last four years of his life in Santa Cruz and left his belongings and land to the school district, has been rectified, and the London Nelson Community Center will be accurately represented in time for Saturday’s Juneteenth lineup.

Santa Cruz Juneteenth, organized around the theme of “Liberation” and by extension “Liberation in the Outdoors,” has a full and varied schedule this year.

With COVID-19 restrictions mostly lifted, the lineup includes “quite a few more speakers than we usually have,” said Ana Elizabeth, a producer of Santa Cruz Juneteenth for “about 20 years, give or take a few.”

The events company she runs along with her brother took over producing the event after Raymond Evans, a Texan who was formerly assistant director of the London Nelson Community Center and founded Juneteenth celebrations here in Santa Cruz, retired.

“It’s pretty exciting because it’s one of the first events at the park after it’s fully opened,” Elizabeth said. “It looks to be a great turnout this year compared to the last few years.”

Saturday events start with hike in Wilder Ranch

Before the main event, the weekend kicks off Saturday with the “Liberation Hike and Healing Circle” at 8 a.m. (meet in the parking lot at 7:45) at Wilder Ranch. Participants will also be guided in meditation.

Events then move to Laurel Park, adjacent to the community center at Laurel and Center streets. From 1-4 p.m., speakers and performers take the stage, including Lisa Taylor, Lyrical-I, Lee Earl, Gregory Speed, and the Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center.

Organizer-activists Bella Bonner, founder of Black Surf Club Santa Cruz, and Thomas Sage Pedersen, host of the podcast “Speak for Change” who started the burgeoning men’s group The Black Kings of Santa Cruz County, will emcee the proceedings.

Bella Bonner speaking at last Sunday's pre-Juneteenth paddle-out
Bella Bonner, speaking at last Sunday’s pre-Juneteenth paddle-out, will co-emcee Saturday’s celebration at Laurel Park in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Attendees can enjoy nourishing soul food and participate in arts and crafts, a basketball skills contest, and even the highlight of any true festive atmosphere: a sack race. There will be musical acts, but unlike in past years, the emphasis will not be on bands.

“Alongside Bella, I’ll be hosting,” Pedersen said. “We will be the ones introducing the event and speaking in between.”

Elizabeth invited Pedersen to emcee after she listened to his podcast. “She resonated with the mission and everything I’ve been doing in the community,” he said. “When I learned Bella would be the co-emcee, I was in.”

Elizabeth said she is excited to have Pedersen, Bonner and other newer organizers involved. “We’ve had so much interest in the event and had a whole slew of younger people become involved and share their ideas,” she said. “That’s where the paddle-out, hike, and meditation circle came from. We are very excited to have new voices and new people step up and participate.”

Lyrical-I, spoken word artist and member of The Black Kings, will be performing his first cover, Common’s “Letter to the Free.” Other speakers from the community include Greg Speed and Santa Cruz City Councilmember and former mayor Justin Cummings, who “will be talking about the London Nelson name change,” Pedersen said.

Sunday’s highlight: Repainting of the mural

From 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on Sunday (Father’s Day), the Juneteenth celebration continues with an all-day event led by Yoga for All and the SC Equity Collab, an initiative formed by the current racial justice movement and around the Black Lives Matter street mural on Center Street in front of Santa Cruz City Hall, conceived of by artist Abi Mustapha.

“This group is used to grassroots organizing,” said Pedersen, who has been deeply involved in both Saturday and Sunday’s events. “This is part of Juneteenth,” he said, “to promote equity in our community.”

The day involves “speakers and workshops around social justice in Santa Cruz and beyond, plus repainting the Black Lives Matter mural,” according to SC Equity Collab’s website.

There will be speakers, workshops and discussions featuring notable presenters such as Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers; Cat Willis, founder and executive director of the Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center; artist Mustapha; healer and spiritualist Luna Bey; councilmember Cummings; and Santa Cruz Vice Mayor Sonja Brunner.

Sunday’s pulse will be the repainting of the mural. Community members doing work around equity and justice will be invited to repaint the mural every year.

“We want to make sure it’s not just a performative act,” Pedersen said, “that there’s actual change, action, and strategy that follows this repainting of the mural and the commitment to equity in our community.”