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Duluth's African-American community celebrates Juneteenth Saturday

People fill Central Hillside Park in Duluth during the annual Juneteenth celebration in 2013. The celebration has been happening in Duluth for more than 30 years. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Five or six blocks away from the crush and hoopla of Grandma's Marathon in Canal Park on Saturday, another long-standing community event will unfold in Duluth.

The annual celebration of Juneteenth will take place in Central Hillside Park from noon to 6 p.m. Hosted by the Duluth branch of the NAACP, the event draws a few hundred people throughout the day, organizers said.

It's the centerpiece to what is a big week for residents of the Twin Ports to celebrate African-American heritage and history.

"It's one of our greater opportunities as a city to shine a light on community — not just the community of people of color but our community as a whole," said Carl Crawford, the city's human rights officer.

In addition to Duluth's Juneteenth celebration, there will be events surrounding the city's Day of Remembrance, which on Friday observes the anniversary of the 1920 lynchings of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie.

The city of Superior will also have its fourth annual Juneteenth celebration on Sunday in Kelly Park from 1-7 p.m.

"Our city recognizes just how vital it is to have these types of cultural events as core building blocks for retaining communities of color," said Superior event organizer Kym Young.

Juneteenth is a celebration of the emancipation of the last black slaves in America — in Texas on June 19, 1865. It's been celebrated for decades in Duluth as equal parts remembrance, reunion and celebration.

"It is our African heritage independence day," said Salaam Witherspoon, the event's coordinator. "Slavery is a part of American history. We need to acknowledge it happened, how the system was created and evolved around that and try to move forward. It's just as important as Fourth of July."

In Duluth, the Juneteenth celebration will feature a barbecue, bouncy castles and social justice tabling. Crawford is part of the African-American Men's Group of Duluth, which does the cooking. Families come from all over to reunite at the event, he said, and the celebration also draws many people from the Central Hillside — of all colors.

"It's a good kaleidoscope," Crawford said. "A lot of people who come have a connection with the Hillside area, a lot of people were Central High School graduates."

Witherspoon comes from one of Duluth's most prominent civil rights families — one of 10 children to Sharon Witherspoon and her late husband, Rev. Sylvester Witherspoon. At 33, Salaam now finds herself taking up the mantle of civil rights leadership, and believes Juneteenth plays an important role in bridging divisions between people.

"It's all-encompassing," she said of the Juneteenth celebration, "but we are unapologetically black. It's a black thing, but it's not only for black people."

Witherspoon is also cognizant of keeping things in the moment: Juneteenth is about having a good time, too.

Said Witherspoon, "It's family and kid friendly — we're really focused on our youth and celebration."

African-American heritage events this week in the Twin Ports

• Thursday, 5:45 p.m. at the AICHO building at 212 W. Second St., Duluth: "Reflections on the Peace and Justice Memorial." The Alabama 35 shares experiences related to the Duluth group's bus ride to Alabama this spring for the opening of a national lynching memorial.

• Friday, noon at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, corner of East First Street and North Second Avenue East in downtown Duluth: A Day of Remembrance program to honor the victims of the 1920 lynchings in Duluth.

• Friday, 5:30 p.m. at Park Hill Cemetery, 2500 Vermilion Road, Duluth: Graveside service for lynching victims Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie.

• Saturday, noon to 6 p.m., Central Hillside Park, 12 E. Fourth St., Duluth: annual Juneteenth celebration from the Duluth branch of the NAACP.

• Sunday, 1-7 p.m., Kelly Park at 711 Grand Ave., Superior: Superior's fourth annual Juneteenth celebration sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Superior Department of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

All events are free and open to the public.

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