YOUNGSTOWN — The city's first official Juneteenth celebration took place in the thick of a global pandemic as nationwide protests against police brutality hit a crescendo after the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
"It was certainly difficult to celebrate a moment like Juneteenth in the thick of police brutality happening in real time," Derrick McDowell, founder of the Youngstown Flea, said. "So last year was out of a huge necessity. We felt the need to bring Juneteenth to light for the community to understand and have a better way to articulate what the culture was trying to say to the rest of the country."
For that reason, "it was really important for us to take celebrating our liberation to the next level" this year, said Charles Colvin, also known as DJ Chip Banks of Loud 102.3.
Colvin spearheaded the organization of Saturday's event, which took place at the Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre.
"You see a lot more people engaged who brought culture to the table to be celebrated, and we hope the community feels safe enough to come out and celebrate and commemorate," McDowell said Saturday.
Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. Nearly three years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, on June 19, 1865, a Union general informed enslaved Blacks in Galveston, Texas, of their freedom.
Juneteenth has been celebrated in Black communities for more than a century; on Thursday, President Joe Biden made it a national holiday, which makes this year's celebration "extra special," said Guy Birney, executive director of the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence.
"That just gives it the ability to be acknowledged by everyone," Birney said. "It's really important."
"It's long overdue," said Verona Floyd, of Youngstown, who attended the event Saturday. "We deserved it. I hope it's accepted by everyone. ... This is the beginning."
"We needed this," she added.
In a city that celebrates cultures of mid-century white immigrants from Italy, Greece, Slovakia and Poland, McDowell sees Juneteenth as another version of the city's celebration of heritage.
"We do it with the Italian Fest. We do it with Simply Slavic. We do it with Spanish festivals. We do it with all of our cultures, and so Juneteenth is a moment to commemorate, but it's also a moment to celebrate what we've been through as well," he said.
On Saturday, dozens of vendors lined the paths inside the amphitheater, leaving the lawn open for people to set up chairs, listen to music and chat with friends and family.
Vendors were chosen to represent the diversity of the community, Birney said.
Minority Health Director Golie Stennis had a table and was prepared to vaccinate people at the event. In addition to hosting neighborhood clinics, her team regularly sets up a table at events throughout the city.
"This might be the place [that brings] that one person we missed in the other clinics that we had,” Stennis said. "If they come to this event and want that shot, we're going to be available. ... If we get that one, we're happy."
The vendors also included local Black business owners, like Jovan Robinson of Girard.
During the pandemic, she started making scented body butters. The Juneteenth celebration was her third event selling her product, Divine Creations Body Butter by Jovan.
"It's very inspiring" to be among other Black-owned local businesses, Robinson said.
The diversity of vendors — from artisans to public health experts to food programs — embodies the essence of the holiday, Birney said.
"That's what Juneteenth is," he noted. "We have to start taking care of each other."