Juneteenth Arts Festival attracts hundreds of people to Union

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UNION, NJ — Juneteenth, the June 19 holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, had only just become a federal holiday when Union Township hosted its first-ever Juneteenth Arts Festival at Rabkin Park. At the festival, residents enjoyed a multitude of activities, including entertainment, recreation, art and food.

Ann-Margaret Shannon, president of the Union Township Education Association and organizer of the free event, spoke glowingly of all it had to offer.

“The UTEA — the secretaries, nurses, teachers, paraprofessionals, the front line who takes care of the children in the schools, has collaborated with the township to have our first Juneteenth Arts Festival,” Shannon said on Saturday, June 19. “The UTEA has great booths. We have our ceramics teacher, with her African art masks. We have a social media tent, where we have a DVD playing the history of Juneteenth. We had our NJ Choir, with students and educators singing the black national anthem. We had a panel discussion, where the president of the Board of Education was a moderator of three teachers and three students asking questions about the importance of Juneteenth being in our curriculum. We have our welcoming tent, where we’re giving away little lunch bags with bottles of water. And we have a really nice children’s tent, where we’re giving out books on Juneteenth.

“We’ve started the Social Justice Committee about one year ago and we’ve just gradually been doing more and more things, such as voter registration, among other things,” she continued. “This is our biggest event so far, and this is a culmination of a year’s worth of work. The event is really beyond our expectations and the weather is great. It’s been running so smoothly.”

Event coordinator and recent Montclair University graduate Mickeala Bland is the creator of the Juneteenth Arts Festival. Originally from Union, Bland aspires to become a social worker; she has a passion for community involvement and activism. Bland said she wanted to give back to the community. Seeing how successful this year’s event turned out, Bland said she plans to add more African dancers, singers and fashion shows next year.

“We’re celebrating Juneteenth and we’re celebrating black independence, creativity and just black people, period,” Bland said on Saturday, June 19. “I’m so grateful to be the first person to do this for my community. I’m from Union. I went to Union High School and went to Burnett Middle School. I’ve lived here for the past 18 years, and it’s my home. So, I just love the fact that I was able to come here and celebrate with the people who’ve made Union what it is today. If I had to make a quick estimate of how many people we’ve had throughout the day, I’d probably say about 500. We have more than 50 vendors that appeal to everyone, including Beauty Bar, Once and Again Apparel, African Paradise, Lapparel, etc.

“In the early stages, it was just me, but I can’t take all the credit. There were so many people who were on the committee with me to plan this wonderful event,” she continued. “Arthur Pinckney, William Reyes, Patricia Bridges, Ann-Margaret Shannon, just to name a few. There are so many more people who helped create this event. Juneteenth is not a well-known holiday, and I wanted to change that. I wanted people to know about it and celebrate our independence, our blackness, our beautifulness, our creativity and celebrate us. That was the main push to the idea of having this in Union. This first event was great, and I already have some ideas for next year.”

Organizer Arthur Pinckney, an art seller, also spoke about the success of the event. According to Pinckney, the art on sale is about African heritage and Africa in America.

“We’re celebrating Juneteenth in Union. We specialize in American art and we do a lot of African imports — we have handbags, copper from the Congo, thread art from Ghana. We have art from all over Africa, as well as U.S. art,” Pinckney said on Saturday, June 19. “It’s been pretty busy today, and I think it’s 100 percent successful. The art that we have on sale are all different prices, ranging from $20 to $800.”

Union Mayor Michele Delisfort was also in attendance and said that, after observing how successful the event was, she will push for the event to happen again next year.

“I am here commemorating our first annual Juneteenth celebration and it’s been absolutely wonderful,” Delisfort said on Saturday, June 19. “It started at 11 a.m. and I have seen so many people from the community, even people from outside of the community, come and patronize the event. We have more than 50 vendors. We have food trucks. We’ve had a panel of speakers from Kean University and Stockton University. We even had a panel of children to talk about what Juneteenth meant to them. I’m excited, and I hope this is one of many to come. I love the fact that we’re able to support our local businesses, as well.

“This becoming annual is the plan,” she continued. “It took more than 150 years for the government to recognize Juneteenth as a public holiday, and I just think that, annually, that’s something that we need to continue to teach our children. Not everyone knows what Juneteenth is, so to not recognize it and to not do something public about it, to me, is criminal. We will push to do this again next year.”

Assistant township administrator and event coordinator William Reyes said he was also surprised and thrilled about the event’s success.

“You always worry about your first annual and we’ve been working since December 2020,” Reyes said on Saturday, June 19. “We got together a great group of people to put it together, and each of us used our strengths and our networking skills to be able to bring an event such as this. I’m thrilled and we’re all thrilled with the turnout. The turnout has been fantastic and we’ve had hundreds of people come through here, and it’s literally one of the best events so far this year. We’re already looking forward to next year and we’re really excited about it.”

Photos by EmilyAnn Jackman