ROCKFORD — Saturday’s Juneteenth observance at Sinnissippi Park celebrating the emancipation of African Americans enslaved in the United States took on a special meaning for Tommy Meeks of Rockford, who has organized Juneteenth events in the city for more than three decades.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed a congressional bill into law that made Juneteenth a federal holiday.
Meeks was on hand in Springfield Wednesday when Gov. JB Pritzker signed legislation into law making Juneteenth an official state holiday.
“This is the greatest week for me to celebrate Juneteenth,” Meeks said. “Having the governor invite me down to Springfield and mention my name. Everybody said ‘It’s good you’re getting the recognition while you’re still alive,’ and I said ‘I don’t plan on checking out anytime soon.’ But, it does feel good that people recognize when you work hard for something and believe in it.”
The celebration at Sinnissippi Park featured live music, food and clothing booths, children’s games, and the Black Graduation to mark the educational achievements of 32 African American students from grades five through 12.
The graduation ceremony at the park’s music shell was organized by Tony Turner, life coach and founder of the mentoring organization Conscious Coaching.
“We have to raise the bar and keep the bar high so as our children grow and their children grow, education and personal goals and attainment is at the forefront of their mind,” Turner said. “We don’t have to depend on anyone else, any other race, culture or creed to speak to our children for educational attainment. It’s about accountability and showing them that we’re behind them and appreciate everything that they do.”
The celebration attracted Claudia Woodward of Rockford who said she lives in the neighborhood and often walks on the hills of Sinnissippi Park.
“I thought I’d come around and be supportive, visit all of the booths, and try to find some good food and maybe some other things to buy,” Woodward said. “I’m really excited that America’s changing and Rockford’s changing. We’ve got a long way to go but I really want to be supportive of everybody.”
Juneteenth was also observed at Davis Park, 320 S. Wyman St., in the city’s downtown.
The 619 Freedomfest Celebration included a gospel concert, rides, games, food and table vendors.
“Juneteenth means celebrating my ancestors, celebrating freedom and just being unified with the entire community,” said Ashley D. Williams, one of the event organizers. “A lot of people think that other races can’t celebrate with us, but it’s truly a holiday for the entire United States. All races should celebrate and we encourage everybody to do that as well.”
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865 — more than two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves — when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to enforce the proclamation.
While progress is being made, the fight is not over, Meeks said.
“There’s much more work to do because we had 90 some years where we still had that thumb on us, even in Rockford, Illinois,” Meeks said. “My mother worked at a place called Modern Laundry in the 1960s where they paid the white women double what they paid the Black women. We’ve got to realize it and say ‘No more.’ We’re all Americans and we’re all humans and humanity is the most important entity in this world to me.”