Smile Politely

Talking Juneteenth with Robert White

3 young Black girls are jumping off the ground in a sack race. They are laughing while spectators watch.
Champaign Public Library on Facebook

Fire up the grill and pour yourself a red drink —Juneteenth is almost here. This is a day of remembrance and celebration. Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but it wasn’t until June 19, 1865 that more than 200,000 enslaved people in Galveston Island, Texas were told that they were free. (There is a great book that is a quick and interesting read if you’re interested.) For many people, this holiday is a connection to their past. Some have been celebrating as long as they can remember, for others, however, this newly nationally-recognized holiday is one that they have just started celebrating. Wherever you fall, with the removal of books and education about Black history in some states, it is so important to spend time learning about and honoring the past. Whether it’s grilling in your backyard, supporting amazing Black-owned businesses, or attending a Juneteenth Festival, there are so many ways to celebrate. In Champaign-Urbana, are celebrations hosted by the MTD, a new one in Colbert Park, one hosted by the Urbana Park District, and another through the Champaign Park District.

I interviewed Robert White, the Adult and Senior Coordinator for Douglass Park of the Champaign Park District, to find out more about CPD’s celebration and its ties to the Champaign community. 

A black man with short dark hair and a dark beard is wearing a pink button up shirt and standing in front of a brick wall with a an orange and brown mural painted on it.
Robert White

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Smile Politely: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your role at The Champaign Park District?

Robert White: I am a transplant of Champaign from Southern Illinois. I am the Adult and Senior Coordinator for Douglass Park Of the Champaign Park District and I have been in my role for about two years. I am responsible for providing programming in the park and the surrounding community. Juneteenth is one of the bigger events we hold throughout the year. 

SP: How long have you lived in Champaign-Urbana?

White: I’m originally from Lebanon, (15 minutes outside of East St. Louis). I’ve been in Champaign for about six years now.

Two woman stand on a basketball court waving large flags in the air. There is a blue sky behind them and a few white clouds.
Champaign Park District Website

SP: CPD is hosting their annual Juneteenth celebration. Can you tell me a little bit about it? When did it start and why was it created?

White: This is a collaborative effort between the Champaign Park District and The Douglass Branch of the Champaign Public Library. Juneteenth originates from events that happened on June 19, 1865 in Texas. On that day, the union army reached Texas, two years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and freed the last enslaved people. Juneteenth gives us all a great opportunity to reflect upon our nation’s past, while also celebrating the freedoms of today. The Juneteenth celebration is an opportunity for our C-U community members, students, parents, relatives, businesses, and organizations alike, to learn and celebrate African American freedom, culture, contribution, and achievement.

SP: Did you know about Juneteenth growing up? Was it celebrated in your family or community? 

White: I knew vaguely of Juneteenth when I was younger. In college, I was an English major with a minor in African American studies, so I definitely gained exposure on the educational front. Also my fraternity brother was a huge advocate for learning about and celebrating Juneteenth as well. I have been celebrating ever since. 

Two Black woman stand next to each other smiling at the camera. They are both wearing purple emancipation day shirts and are standing behind a table filled with colorful toys and play dough containers.
Champaign Public Library Facebook

SP: What are you most looking forward to at this year’s celebration? 

White: I’m looking forward to the unification of our community partners and members alike. I’m also looking forward to the community coming together and celebrating the freedoms that our ancestors were not afforded.

SP: Why is it important to celebrate Juneteenth, and what would you tell first time attendees? 

White: It’s important to celebrate Juneteenth because it is American history, it is all of our history. You have to know where you have been to know where you are going and where you want to go. If it is your first time attending, come with an open mind and be prepared to have a good time filled with fun and culture.

A Black man in a white t-shirt sits at a keyboard and sings into the attached microphone. There is a black wall behind him.
Champaign Public Library Facebook

SP: The schedule is full of incredible performers. Tell me about the process to find all of the amazing vendors.

White: Collaborating with our community partners is an essential function for any successful event and we have a great relationship with those partners and sponsors, plus who doesn’t want to support such a momentous occasion?

SP: What is your best memory of previous Juneteenth celebrations? 

White: Easy: The community support.

SP: What do you hope people will take away from this experience? 

White: I would hope people leave feeling empowered and educated. And hopefully that exposure makes them a better person.

Juneteenth Emancipation Day Celebration
Douglass Park
504 E Grove St
Sa Jun 17, noon to 3:00 p.m.

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