Juneteenth comes to UAA

On a sun-drenched June 14 afternoon, poet–performer Royale Mosley stood on a small stage set up between lilac bushes and oriental poppies in front of the Lucy Cuddy Hall, and urged the crowd to sing along in Swahili, “Funga Alafia,  Ashay Ashay.”

“The song,” she said, “means, ‘We welcome you in with our hearts and our minds.’”

The lyrical opening marked the beginning of this year’s UAA Juneteenth celebration, whetting appetites and helping to prompt reflection on America’s 140-year legacy of emancipation. The event was spearheaded by UAA Student Activities, which covered most of the $5000 budget and provided student workers. Other university organizations sponsored the event, including Student Affairs, African American, Hispanic, Asian, International and Native American students, and Campus Diversity and Compliance.

Standing in a long line for a menu which included catfish, sausage jambalaya and sweet-potato pie, attendee Marvell Johnson discussed the meaning Juneteenth should have for Americans today.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white. It’s important to know the physical fact that there were people who lived in bondage, and that’s part of your history.”

The historical background of Juneteenth was spelled out on a pair of large posters hanging outside the Cuddy Hall, which were set against a larger context of black history that included the 1517 foundation of the first New World slave plantation, the publication of Richard Wright’s novel “Native Son” and the 1992 election of Carol Mosley Brown, the first black woman in the U.S. Senate. Juneteenth commemorates the freeing of slaves in Galveston, Texas June 19, 1865, marking the effective end of slavery in America more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Balancing entertainment and information has been a challenge for the organizers of Juneteenth celebrations.

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Master of ceremonies Cal Williams said the first Anchorage Juneteenth was held in 1971 in a parking lot. Soon after it moved to the Delaney Park Strip and became an ever larger event until one year an attendee was interviewed for local television news.

“In the interview, the woman said she had no idea what the event had been about,” Williams said. “She said, ‘To me, it’s just a party.’”

Williams said this comment resulted in organizers giving up the event for several years out of frustration.

This year’s Juneteenth put a heavy emphasis on the message. Even the cuisine, provided by Catfish Haven, Roscoe’s Skyline Restaurant, UAA Housing and Dining Services and the Sourdough Mining Company, came with a 20-page companion booklet including an extended essay on the history of soul food. The vocal group Levitical Praise sang several spiritual songs including “Brighter Day” and “Total Praise.”

“Juneteenth is about total recognition of emancipation,” Levitical Praise singer Nancy Smith said, citing one of the most important aspects as the “freedom to praise God in any arena.”

Mosley mixed comedy and introspection in a one-woman vignette, in which she donned a hair net and plain floral factory smock and played a grandmotherly figure sharing stories on the porch.

“There are people in Africa whose job is just to talk,” Mosley said in character, referring to African storytellers. “So I know I’d have a good job over there.”

Mosley said the character was based on a composite of many relatives and teachers who have inspired her, but the porch setting was based on where she heard stories from her own grandmother. Mosley stressed the importance of having a sense of cultural heritage, noting the many things we take for granted which would not exist if not for black inventors.

“We wouldn’t have the filament in lights, we’d have no pressing combs, no refrigerators, no stoplights.”

Some more painful and distressing aspects of the past were also brought to light on this sunny afternoon. Williams related the history of Fairview and Eastchester, which, historically considered the “black areas” of old Anchorage, still had gravel streets when everything else was paved. When carpenter-turned-activist Joe Parks brought the inequities to public attention, the response was that the streets were oiled but not paved, and instead of installing street lamps, 100-watt light bulbs were strung from posts.

Williams, who was president of the local NAACP from 1968-75, believes that it’s important to remind people that the civil rights struggle is not something that happened long ago and far away from Alaska.

“We’re all slaves to something. Drugs, guys who communicate with profanity and violence, sex abuse against young ones, these can all oppress us,” Williams said. “But when you start talking about it, people ask ‘why are you whining and complaining? Civil rights was settled in 1965.’”

When asked what how he envisions America’s future, Williams didn’t hesitate to answer.

“I would like to see a society where everyone thinks of their liberation first.”

Editor's note: This story has been altered from its print version in order to make a correction.