How Berkeley's Juneteenth Festival Has Honored Black Pride for Decades

Members of the SambaFunk! collective dance and drum during the 2019 Berkeley Juneteenth Festival. (Liliana Michelena/KQED)

Juneteenth is the yearly commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States on June 19 — and it's been honored by community events here in the Bay Area for decades.

San Francisco's Juneteenth Celebration has traditionally been one of the largest gatherings of African Americans in California every year. And in the East Bay, thousands of people come together each year for Berkeley’s annual Juneteenth Festival, in South Berkeley.

“It celebrates the Black experience,” explains Delores Nochi Cooper, who has organized Berkeley’s Juneteenth Festival for the past 33 years. This huge annual festival places Black community and pride front and center — a gathering filled with music, street vendors, drum circles and exhibits showcasing local Black history.

Like so many planned Juneteenth celebrations in the Bay Area, the 2020 Berkeley Juneteenth event — which was due to take place on Sunday, June 21 — has been canceled to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and replaced by an online commemoration.

Dakh Jones and his son Enrico (and a Juneteenth photobomber) celebrate black pride in South Berkeley, where Jones was born and raised. 'It's significant that this celebration has not completely phased out, that it's still important for the Berkeley city,' he said.
Dakh Jones and his son Enrico (and a Juneteenth photobomber) celebrate Black pride in South Berkeley at the 2019 Berkeley Juneteenth Festival. (Liliana Michelena/KQED)

Juneteenth has since evolved into an annual holiday celebrated by African Americans around the country. According to Cooper, it’s a day to remember the horrors of slavery while also celebrating the resilience of the African American community.

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“We have to toot our own horn and let people know that what we've done is significant,” said Cooper. “Without our contribution, America just simply would not be America.”

The city of Berkeley has commemorated Juneteenth almost every year since 1986, making it one of the longest running festivals in Northern California.

Delores Nochi Cooper, who has organized Berkeley’s Juneteenth Festival for the past 33 years. (Courtesy Delores Nochi Cooper)

Black joy and culture are elevated front and center, through food, writing, dance and music. The festival includes two main stages, where performers in recent years include Mike Marshall and H.E.R.

Berkeley’s celebration also features a historical exhibit — “to bring attention to people who have been significant in the history of Berkeley and in the history of California,” said Cooper.

But in addition to celebrating Black culture, Cooper said she hopes Juneteenth also offers non-Black folks a chance to understand the complexities and nuances of the Black experience.

A performer at Berkeley's 2017 Juneteenth Festival (Via Berkeley Junteenth Festival/Facebook)

“Other cultures don't really get the opportunity to know who Black people are,” said Cooper. “But the more familiar you are, the better you feel. It's not just, ‘oh, I like that music,' or ‘oh, I like that culture,’ but knowing Black people as individuals. They have the same needs and wants as everybody else.”

Most years, Berkeley’s Juneteenth Festival hosts 1,000-5,000 people. In the wake of COVID-19 — and the widespread protests over the killing of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police — this year’s Juneteenth will look and feel very different.

Cooper is planning the 2020 commemoration as a virtual event entitled 'No Justice, No Emancipation.' She says it'll take the form of "an online commentary with writings from writers and artists about the pandemic, civil unrest and the current status of Black lives."

The organizers will publish daily commentaries by Black artists and thinkers on the Berkeley Juneteenth Festival Facebook Page about how they're processing this current moment in history. One article draws comparisons between protesters and comic book characters. Another is about running while Black, in response to the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Cooper says that at the end of the celebration she’ll compile the writing into a magazine, so people have a keepsake by which to remember this particular, historic Juneteenth.

“This civil unrest makes us hopeful about the future in America and the changes that potentially can come,” she says.