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Local teens helm event to entertain, educate city on importance of Black holiday commemorating freeing of slaves

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Greshams Juneteenth event was all about kids — from the teens who organized it to the children enjoying the family-friendly activities.  For the past month a group of talented teenagers all teamed up to put together East Multnomah County's Juneteenth celebration — including layout, sponsors, entertainment, facilities, parking, press, food, and everything in between.

In Gresham, Juneteenth is youth-led.

"We can be an example for the youth and teach them," said Anthony Bradley, who co-leads Beyond Black CDC and Play Grow Learn, two organizations that empower local youths. "We wanted to give them the opportunity of leadership today."

"They had a significant say in what this all looked like," he added.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Fartun Said was one of the teens who helped plan Greshams Juneteenth, held at Vance Park Sunday, June 19.  One of the youngsters behind the local iteration of what has become a national holiday commemorating the true abolition of the last group of slaves was Fartun Said, a 16-year-old Jefferson student. She helmed the facilities team, one of eight groups that worked in concert to put together Gresham's Juneteenth.

"Today is about getting together, meeting people, and having fun," she said.

Sunday, June 19, those dozens of teens got to revel in the results of their month-long hard work.

Gresham's Juneteenth ran all-day Sunday at Vance Park, 1400 S.E. 182nd Ave. The gathering felt like a community picnic, with food, live music, impromptu games spurred by the dozens of children running on the lawns and play structures, poetry and artwork, and lots of information/resource booths for the families and neighbors who swung by.

Community partners Friends of Baseball and Genesis FC hosted sports clinics; there were bounce castles; free haircuts, face painting, and balloon animals; and local Black-owned businesses like Puddin's Kitchen and Highly Favored Mothers.

"I like cooking for the people, bringing good food into Oregon," said Anthony Greely, Puddin's Kitchen. "BBQ that sticks to your stomach."

"I came out to represent women and mothers," said Hope Johnson, owner of Highly Favored Mothers.

All of it concluded with an afterparty at the Rockwood Market Hall, 458 S.E. 185th Ave.

"Juneteenth is a sense of ownership, empowerment," said Germaine Flentroy, Beyond Black. "You belong here, you are free in this community."

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Greshams Juneteenth included free haircuts.  Growing in Gresham

One of the event's main organizers, Flentroy, had plenty to smile about on Sunday.

The day has always made him think about his sons, and his own experiences growing up in Louisiana, so it was apropos that Sunday, June 19, was also Father's Day.

"Our kids get to see our Black community shine," Flentroy said. "Makes us all feel a sense of pride."

There have been two driving forces between hosting a local Juneteenth event in Gresham these past few years — having a community gathering to share resources and entertainment, and educating folks young and old about that important day in history.

Those are the things that Flentroy's children are now learning. It was something he heard about in the South, but after moving to Oregon for high school realized few others knew about.

His experience isn't unique. Anthony Bradley, who runs Beyond Black CDC alongside Flentroy, used to only celebrate his birthday on June 19. It wasn't until his freshman year of high school that he learned about the importance the day had for the Black community.

"Learning about Juneteenth and sharing a birthday with the day helped me define who I was as a person, Black man and father," Bradley said. "It taught me to be free."

Every year things are beginning to change, both in Gresham and across the country, as more people become aware of the significance of that landmark day.

Observed annually on June 19, the day honors the abolition of slavery in the United States and remembers those kept in chains until June 1865, despite the conclusion of the Civil War in April and the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation years earlier.

State and federal leaders named the day an official holiday last year, a Juneteenth flag flies over Gresham City Hall at the behest of City Council, and folks like Flentroy and Bradley have continued to bring in-person Juneteenth gatherings to East Multnomah County.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Emon Ghassemi, left, and Gresham Mayor Travis Stovall both spoke about the importance of Juneteenth, which commemorates the final slaves being released in the U.S.  This weekend was the third Juneteenth celebration in East Multnomah County. It all began in 2019, with a pause in 2020 due to the pandemic forcing things online.

"We need to keep educating and growing Juneteeth — not just in Gresham but around the world," Flentroy said. "This day is about freedom."

Juneteenth also served as the capper for what was Gresham's Youth Violence Prevention Week, hosted June 16-19 by the city's new Youth Services Division. That program also supported Juneteenth and Beyond Black with grant funding.

"We want to provide our kids engagement and activities," said Emon Ghassemi, Gresham youth services manager.

The week's activities included a 3x3 Basketball Tournament at HB Lee Middle School; soccer clinic at the Eastside Timbers and Thorns Sports Complex; and a cleanup around Rockwood Prep Academy.

"Cool to have services back in Gresham for our youth," said Marcell Frazier, Gresham youth violence prevention coordinator. "Growing up my parents were always able to drop me off at something — we want that in Gresham."

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Anthony Greely, Puddins Kitchen, dished out mouth-watering barbeque during the Juneteenth celebration. History of Juneteenth

While President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, freeing enslaved people in the Confederate States, hundreds of thousands remained in chains.

One of the last holdouts was Texas, which stood firm in rebellion after the end of the Civil War and continued to allow enslavement. It was estimated there were still 250,000 slaves in Texas in 1865.

So the federal government sent in 2,000 troops led by Union Army General Gordon Granger to enforce the proclamation. They arrived at Galveston Island, Texas, on June 18, and by the following day the slaves were emancipated.

Juneteenth would become the oldest known celebration commemorating the end of slavery.

At first, gatherings occurred annually, but their frequency began to wane in the early 20th century. The day returned to the forefront as groups began resurrecting celebrations in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1994, a group gathered in a Baptist church in New Orleans to prompt relaunching a national celebration of Juneteenth.

While Juneteenth remains rooted within the Black community, it is about celebrating the common love of freedom. In Gresham, part of the impetus for local events resulted from the steady gentrification in North Portland that forced many Black residents to relocate to East County.

"We were pushed out this way, so we need to keep showing we are a community," Flentroy said. "This is a safe place where we can build and put down roots."

Growing up in Kansas City, Kansas, Gresham Mayor Travis Stovall also had Juneteenth be a big part of his life. In that community the day is a major celebration.

"My family celebrated Juneteenth as long as I can remember," he said.

So Stovall has been supportive of the burgeoning Juneteenth gatherings in the community he now leads.

"East Multnomah County and Gresham has such a high percentage of African American residents, it is critical to bring together the community and celebrate such a momentous event," Stovall said.

The mayor read an official proclamation commemorating Juneteenth, and met with those plucky youth leaders who organized and put on the event.

"The foundation of this day is understanding where our nation came from," Stovall said. "This is a holiday for everybody to celebrate," Stovall said.

"We never want to go back to that part of our past," he added.

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