Tulsa Juneteenth on Solid Ground, Moving Forward Showcasing City's African-American Artists

By Ginnie Graham Tulsa World

Some of the biggest names have played the Tulsa Juneteenth stages, from the Count Basie Orchestra to Natalie Cole, but for a few years the celebration meandered a bit, affected by competing events or even silence.

Until last year.

That’s when a group of community activists and artists got together to form a unified front and vision to revive the arts and music festival.

“Tulsa used to have one of the biggest Juneteenth celebrations in the nation, and we want to bring that back,” said event chairwoman Sherry Gamble-Smith. “This is really important for our city.

“We want all of Tulsa to come together and celebrate like with Mayfest and other festivals. It had laid dormant and then had been divided as a community with Juneteenth.”

Under the banner of the Greenwood Chamber, groups such as the MLK Jr. Commemoration Society, Living Arts of Tulsa, Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame and Guthrie Green joined in planning a singular four-day celebration. It went so well that organizers wanted to formalize the arrangement.

During the past year, Tulsa Juneteenth was formed, with oversight from a board consisting of representatives from different arts and African-American cultural groups. Fundraisers and grants support the nonprofit, which has its account at the Tulsa Community Foundation.

The organized effort allows for a recognizable and sustainable avenue for Juneteenth events. It gets away from being dependent on personalities or certain businesses or groups. It’s a true collaboration, and the four-day celebration begins Thursday.

Board member Charity Marcus has helped other organizations become nonprofits as part of her professional marketing career, but she said this experience has added personal fulfillment.

“It’s been a fun transition,” Marcus said. “To go through this process with them to start a community group to shed a positive light on the north Tulsa community is a good feeling.”

It’s important to keep Tulsa Juneteenth strong because it’s not just about having a good time. It’s about learning about black history, both locally and nationally.

Juneteenth marks the day in June 1865 when the abolition of slavery was announced in Texas, the last state to free its slaves, nearly three years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. It had taken weeks for news of the Civil War’s end to reach the westernmost of the Confederate states.

Traditionally, African-American communities hold cultural celebrations during this time featuring music, art and education.

In Tulsa, Juneteenth activities are held in and around the Greenwood Cultural Center. The neighborhood was part of Black Wall Street, which was destroyed in the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. There are markers to signify the businesses that once stood there, and the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park is a good place to take children.

“It’s to provide an opportunity for people who are not used to coming to north Tulsa or downtown to come and learn about our history and our culture,” Marcus said. “Just like with any minority cultural festival, whether that is a powwow or Cinco de Mayo, this is a celebration where people of other races can come and explore and learn about each other in a fun and family-friendly atmosphere.”

Organizers have chosen an array of events, hitting on nearly every type of arts, including a comedy show, poetry readings, photo exhibits and even a free outdoor screening of “Hidden Figures,” which is a wonderful movie for young girls. Of course, there will be jazz and gospel music featured at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame.

“We know music and different types of art is what’s at the heart of the African-American culture at Juneteenth,” Gamble-Smith said.

Keeping it local is also key. So many times, festival organizers look outside the city for featured artists. Not with this one.

“We don’t need to go outside Tulsa to find outstanding artists and musicians,” Gamble-Smith said. “We have so much talent right here.”

The Tulsa Juneteenth board — and the more than 20-member steering committee — is already planning for next year. Gamble-Smith said the nonprofit may also help in efforts such as getting the Greenwood District on the national historic registry.

“Everyone is wanting to know about our history here in Tulsa,” Gamble-Smith said. “It was hidden for a long time, but it’s not anymore.”


The Phoenix Development Council is a neighborhood association working to bring economic development to 36th St. N., the heart of the Phoenix District, created to work with the City of Tulsa to bring the 36th St. N. Corridor Small Area Plan to fruition. More info: www.phoenixdistricttulsa.com.

This article was written by Ginnie Graham and was originally published in the Tulsa World, here: https://www.tulsaworld.com/news/ginnie-graham-tulsa-juneteenth-on-solid-ground-moving-forward-showcasing/article_52936f58-0d9b-590d-9617-1bdca6ceb5dd.html.