A Juneteenth reawakening: Sights and sounds from a weekend of celebration in downtown Santa Cruz

Singer Lisa Taylor performs on stage at the Juneteenth celebration at the London Nelson Community Center in Santa Cruz.
Singer Lisa Taylor performs on stage at the Juneteenth celebration at the London Nelson Community Center in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

At least 100 Juneteenth revelers packed Laurel Park over the weekend for an event dotted with booths: tarot readings, Black Health Matters, the MAH, and a long line for soul food that quickly sold out.

“This is freaking awesome,” Taj Leahy said, capturing the spirit of the day in four simple words as he rushed around behind the scenes at Saturday’s Juneteenth celebrations at Laurel Park.

Leahy, a Santa Cruz resident, was working in production on the London Nelson Center event on the first Juneteenth celebrated as an official national holiday, and since the correction of the misspelling of London Nelson’s name.

Revelers packed Laurel Park, yet with enough comfortable distance to move around the event with ease on the hot, sunny day. The park was dotted with booths: tarot readings, Black Health Matters, the MAH, and a long line for soul food that quickly sold out.

Thomas Sage Pedersen and Bella Bonner hold court.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Over at the courts, a basketball clinic took place, and the stage, co-emceed by organizer-activists Bella Bonner and Thomas Sage Pedersen, was filled with back-to-back speeches, poems, dances, performances and music, with central messages of coming together and fighting injustice that thematically unified the event.

The spirit of attendees, of whom there were well over 100, was communal and joyful. For many, the gathering marked their first post-COVID chance to reunite.

Mayleigha Brown of Fresno, who was raised in Santa Cruz, was enjoying the chance to “celebrate with everyone I grew up with,” she said. “We were able to come out and celebrate again. Last year we didn’t have it, so it’s amazing.”

At the center of the festivities was the stage. In years past, according to producer Ana Elizabeth, musical performances were central, and this year had as much emphasis on spoken word.

Speeches were given and poems read about power, the need for unity, and the importance of social and political change to correct injustices that still face Black communities.

Poet Greg Speed.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“My mind is completely blown because I’ve never seen so many people in this space,” poet Greg Speed said before his reading, which addressed the fact that Juneteenth becoming a federally recognized national holiday is not a panacea for problems of injustice, inequality and racism against Black people in the United States.

“Juneteenth finally being made a national holiday is not a win,” he said, “but thank you anyway, America.” He drew a parallel between “getting a holiday” and a “banana in the tailpipe.”

“We need the doctors and police to stop killing us, we need us to stop killing us,” he said, reading from his written work. “We’ve never received any tangible goods, we’ve never received what’s really owed to us … no 40 acres and a mule, America still is playing us for a fool.”

Local activist Thairie Ritchie.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The festivities were punctuated by such moments of reckoning, getting the audience to consider the opportunity not just to celebrate but to further reflect on what still needs to be done.

The “three goals” activist and organizer Thairie Ritchie outlined in his affecting speech — “unity, education and making change together,” which he had the crowd chant — would be key to progress and also honor the legacy of London Nelson, who was dedicated to the value of education.

Ritchie wears a bandana around his head “to counter the perception … of how Trump said (we’re all) thugs and looters.” The organizer is a friend of Bonner’s who, after attending last year’s West Cliff march and subsequent protests, came to contemplate what became his message: how we can solve societal problems via solidarity and positivity.

Bella Bonner talks to the London Nelson crowd.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Even as I appreciate the name change, we need to have more pressure,” Ritchie said. “We should have had this name change a long time ago.” He held up Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday and the London Nelson name change as examples of community power used effectively to create change.

The park continued to fill up as the day went on, with some standout musical performances including a moving set by Alexandra the Author and Lyrical-I’s cover of Common’s “Letter to the Free” accompanied by a full band and backup vocalists who got the audience amped.

Elder Ken Brown.
Elder Ken Brown from the Word of Life Church of God in Christ cooks up ribs for a crowd of hundreds who attended Saturday’s Juneteenth celebration.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Tremain Jones, who is the administrative supervisor of Santa Cruz’s parks and recreation department, was at the Juneteenth celebration for the first time as an attendee. Jones worked at London Nelson for over seven years and “used to put this on back in the day.”

The name change has been resonant for Jones, who spent years working on that very issue. Jones wants people to become aware of another question of names: “the difference between actual emancipation day and Juneteenth.” (Emancipation happened two years earlier. Juneteenth was the day the last enslaved people in Texas learned of it from the Union army.)

The crowd enjoys the day.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Jones was glad to be at Juneteenth outside of a professional capacity, able to take it all in and converse. He praised the lineup and the organizers: “Ana always does an excellent job, and the folks helping her.”

Iseth Rae, recreation supervisor at the London Nelson Center, concurred. “It’s been a tremendously positive event, we’re really happy to have the community back together and seeing a full representation of our community, especially coming out of COVID and people not having been together for so long.”

And as for Pedersen, Bonner and several of the speakers — they were ready to do it all again on Sunday at the Black Lives Matter mural repainting event in front of Santa Cruz City Hall. Check out Kevin Painchaud’s photo gallery of Sunday’s festivities below.