The Woman Who Kept Juneteenth Alive in San Francisco

11 min
Rachel Townsend (left) with her father, Rev. Arnold Townsend (right). (Courtesy of Rev. Arnold Townsend)

Juneteenth is the annual commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States, taking place on June 19th.

Taking its name from "June" and "nineteenth," Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 that enslaved people in Texas were finally informed they were free, and that the Civil War had ended. This message — delivered by Union solders in Galveston, TX — reached them a full two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863.

Wilbert McAllister President of Oakland Black Cowboys Association introduces pony, Martin Luther, to San Francisco Juneteenth-attendee Irina Dalian alongside Yolanda Williams of the San Francisco Police Officer's Association. McAllister says Martin Luther is here to honor "fallen cowgirl" Rachel Townsend, longtime event organizer who passed away earlier this year.
Wilbert McAllister President of Oakland Black Cowboys Association introduces pony, Martin Luther, to San Francisco Juneteenth-attendee Irina Dalian alongside Yolanda Williams of the San Francisco Police Officer's Association. McAllister says Martin Luther was there to honor "fallen cowgirl" Rachel Townsend, longtime event organizer who passed away in 2018. (Sara Hossaini/KQED)

Here in the Bay Area, San Francisco's Juneteenth celebration has traditionally been one of the largest gatherings of African Americans in California every year. The city's 2019 Juneteenth parade was named in honor of Rachel Townsend, a leader in San Francisco's Black community who died of sudden illness in 2018. Townsend was active in San Francisco and Oakland politics and fought to keep Juneteenth in San Francisco despite the city's shrinking Black population.

"The Juneteenth festival wouldn't have even happened all of those years had it not been for Rachel Townsend," said San Francisco Mayor London Breed in December 2018. That's when the city rededicated a Western Addition affordable housing complex after Townsend, honoring her work in the community.

Townsend attended her first Juneteenth when she was three. Even as a kid, her father said she was a leader with a big heart. One of the things she was most proud of was her work at a local San Francisco church, working with young girls without fathers. She campaigned for Black local candidates like London Breed, advocating for diverse political representation.

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"If she sees something undone or not being done correctly, she doesn't complain, she just gets in the middle of it," said Rev. Arnold Townsend, vice president of San Francisco's NAACP and Rachel Townsend's father. "That's who she was: she was an organizer."

A memorial table at the African American Art and Culture Complex in San Francisco honors community leaders who have passed. Rachel Townsend (center) who died in 2018 is remembered for her activism and organizing of the city's annual Juneteenth parade. (Erika Aguilar/KQED)

Townsend grew up in Oakland and was surrounded by political activism in San Francisco.  Her dad, vice president of San Francisco's NAACP, said Townsend grew up at a time of rapid change in San Francisco's Black communities.

At its peak in the 1970s, around 13 percent of the city was Black. That's compared to just about 5 percent in 2017. Rachel Townsend's father says events and buildings named after his daughter are a great honor and a reminder of the city's Black history.

"Even at this time when our population is dwindling, and it looks so hopeless, there will always be a Black presence,"  said Rev. Townsend.  "It's to mark that we were once here. Some child is going to always ask: who was she? Who was Rachel Townsend?"

Guest: Rev. Arnold Townsend, father to Rachel Townsend, Board Member of the African American Art and Culture Complex, and Vice President of the San Francisco NAACP

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