By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
TURNERSVILLE – Steve Downing is throwing a party on Saturday, June 22, but it will be as much about history as it will be about the deejay playing and everyone fellowshipping around food and a mural reveal at his gym facility, J&J Fitness on Route 42 in Turnersville.
Downing is celebrating Juneteenth, the first he is doing and one of few such celebration recognizing the day in South Jersey. Juneteenth, which celebrates the end of slavery in America, has grown from a longtime small celebration in Texas to be being recognized around the world.
Juneteenth Party: A Friend and Family Affair
Saturday, June 22, 5600 Route 42, 3-8 p.m.
5600 Route 42, Turnersville
Many states now celebrate it at a state holiday or informally recognize it. There is even a movement by some to make it a national holiday. But Downing said when he started talking up Juneteenth, few if anyone locally knew about it.
“Just with me hanging flyers up and people started asking about it,” Downing said to FRNJ.com recently. “Some people thought I made it up until they until they Googled it. I just want people to realize what it is.”
Juneteenth is officially celebrated on June 19. It was on that day in 1865 when Union soldiers led by Gen. Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas and told African-American slaves they were free. That was 2½ years after the President Abraham Lincoln’s executive order and two months after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, ending the Civil War.
In Texas, the day had been informally celebrated until the Texas legislature became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday in 1980. Other states slowly followed.
“I love history and I have all these books on Black history and I speak it,” Downing said. “Everyone says what are you going to do with this knowledge. You know what, I would love for Juneteenth to be something. I originally wanted to have party for people to come, and I have information and truth about holidays and history, but I know a lot of people are not going to be able to handle that.
“I would like this be an annual thing and every year where I get a little deeper, deeper, you know what I mean? I was just like, you know what, I’m going to do this and I told my wife and she’s like, ‘Okay, you are going to need a lot of help.’ I’m just going to try and see as much as I can on my own.”
Downing is all in for Juneteenth. The event is free with vendors, a bouncy house and other things for children, food, music and he will reveal a mural done at his location.
“Juneteenth is a special day,” Downing said. “It’s what it really is but then when you go and celebrate another holiday like 4th of July. Think about it. In 1776, we’re celebrating the independence of America, and 1776 my family was still in chains. Why am I celebrating this holiday?”
Downing talked about his own personal journey through his legacy, learning two years ago that he was adopted, finding out his birth name – Dean Teriq Degraffenreidt – and then tracing his roots back to a plantation in North Carolina, making Juneteenth even more real for him.
“I know my ancestors died for me,” Downing said. “I know that they had to have some kind of hope. How do you continue onto slavery and you just hope one day that your children’s children will be free, and me being as a black business owner, and I don’t have to answer to anyone.
“I know that’s what my ancestors wanted. We are our ancestor’s wildest dreams, and we don’t take advantage of it. So Juneteenth is the date to celebrate our ancestors; to what they’ve done, and it’s supposed to be about freedom,” he added.
Downing said he was affected by the death of rapper Nipsey Hussle recently and how he was gunned down despite the fact he was trying to change his community for the better.
“I never really listened to his music, but I listened to a lot of his speeches, and quotes he had,” Downing said. “Then when he died and how he died, I’m like this is terrible. This guy tried to help so much. You always try to help. I don’t have a lot of money, but you always want to try to help, make some recognition.”
Downing said he hopes his Juneteenth celebration will just the beginning where people can come together and learn about history. He said through that knowledge, people will be able to learn about the sacrifices of our ancestors and be inspired to make their own contributions.
Juneteenth is a holiday to embraces that notion.
Photo courtesy of Steve Downing.