Iowa Juneteenth celebrations go virtual because of coronavirus

Black history shirts and coffee mugs are on display during the 2019 Juneteenth celebration hosted by the African America
Black history shirts and coffee mugs are on display during the 2019 Juneteenth celebration hosted by the African American Museum of Iowa at Viola Gibson Park in Cedar Rapids. This year’s event will be virtual, because of the coronavirus pandemic, and will include speakers with videotaped messages. (The Gazette)

Iowans are taking a new spin on celebrating and commemorating Juneteenth, the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery in the United States.

Juneteenth celebrations this year will be taking place virtually for both the African American Museum of Iowa and the Iowa Juneteenth Observance organization because of coronavirus restrictions.

Join the events: Click here to visit the Iowa Juneteenth Observance site for event info

The Iowa Freedom Riders are planning an in-person celebratory event, with live performances and a cookout, on Saturday after a protest in downtown Iowa City.

Juneteenth commemorates the abolition of slavery that took place on June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, with news the Civil War had ended and slaves were free, according to the Iowa Department of Human Rights.

The slaves were actually freed two-and-a-half years earlier, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect Jan. 1, 1863.

On April 11, 2002, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack signed legislation establishing Juneteenth — June 19 — as a state holiday. Iowa was the seventh state to recognize the holiday.

C.R. videos

The African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids has been closed since mid-March because of the coronavirus, forcing the museum to reconsider the Juneteenth celebration this year, according to LaNisha Cassell, the museum’s executive director.

“With so much uncertainty, we thought it best to make the decision early in order to create a quality alternative,” Cassell said. “We wanted to provide enough time for everyone to coordinate their prerecorded remarks and performances.”

Cassell said Iowans can view videos at the museum’s website and follow social media this week that takes note of the holiday.

The museum began posting videos on Monday, aimed at connecting Iowans with the history and significance of Juneteenth.


MarKaus, an event coordinator with Iowa Juneteenth Observance, said the virtual celebration began Thursday with a community builder’s appreciation banquet.

On Friday, the organization will celebrate Health Awareness Day, to focus on the healing of the community.

Saturday will bring about a virtual celebration for Neighbor’s Day, with guest speakers and a tribute to a “A Monumental Journey,” a piece on 12 African-American lawyers who changed the course of the American Bar Association.

The live streams can be accessed on Facebook and YouTube.

“Even before the protests and George Floyd, when COVID-19 was still in full roar, we knew that this was going to be something that our voices wouldn’t be heard — we wanted to make sure that above everything else, we don’t lose our voice and take further steps back than we already have as a society,” MarKaus said. “This isn’t just a black people event. It is something we want the whole community and all of Iowa to tap into.”

Cassell said many American do not understand the significance of the Juneteenth holiday.

“We envision building a community that comes together to foster a greater understanding and appreciation of Iowa’s African American history and culture through conversation, engagement and reflection,” Cassell said. “All lives won’t matter until black lives matter.”

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