Don't Miss the Best Party in Tulsa at Juneteenth

4 minutes

In Tulsa, Juneteenth is an historic celebration. Photograph by Melissa Lukenbaugh

Dancers hit their marks, hair swinging in perfect choreographed motions. Bands lay down funky riffs that bring the audience to their feet. Food trucks serve lines of hungry customers, while shoppers browse booths filled with local arts and crafts. This may sound like a weekend-long party, but Tulsa’s Juneteenth celebration is an occasion for remembrance as well.

June 19, 1865, marks the day Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce the official end of chattel slavery in the United States. The announcement came two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation—a delay due in part to Union forces struggling to enforce the new law in Texas until General Lee’s surrender in April 1865. Many historians also believe plantation owners deliberately withheld the news in order to continue profiting off the quarter-million enslaved in Texas. The liberation announcement ignited jubilations that were later called Juneteenth. The holiday continues to be observed in cities across the United States but especially in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma, where many Freedmen went after fleeing Texas.

Juneteenth festivals in Tulsa have brought people together—as many as 50,000 at its peak—since 1989 with music, art, food, and education. The North Tulsa Heritage Foundation and The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame were the two organizations involved in its inception, but leadership has shifted. Tulsa Juneteenth, Inc. was established four years ago to revitalize and expand the event. Last year the Black Wall Street Chamber of Commerce and other civic groups joined the planning process.

“We used to have the biggest Juneteenth festival in the nation,” says Sherry Gamble Smith, president and chief executive officer of the Black Wall Street Chamber of Commerce. “We want to take it back to those large numbers and bring people into our city.”

One of the biggest attractions at each Juneteenth event is music. Festival organizers hope this year’s line-up, which will include artists Sheila E., Morris Day & The Time, and 2018 American Idol contestant Thaddeus Johnson with local band The Wise Men, will help boost attendance.

There also will be plenty to keep younger attendees occupied. The Kids’ Zone will host workshops where children of all ages can learn tools for healthier eating. Specifically geared toward disadvantaged youth, these experiences will incorporate art, music, dance, and an obstacle course.

“We want to teach them at a younger age how to eat healthier and how to help us create this healthy community,” Smith says.

Honoring the past while laying the foundation for a better future: Juneteenth is celebration of life and liberty that echoes throughout time.

This year’s Juneteenth festival is June 13-16. Admission is free, but VIP tickets are available for $80 each. (918) 764-8833 or tulsajuneteenth.org.

Written By
Mary Noble

Mary Noble