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Barbecue, gospel music and a little history at Bremerton's Juneteenth

Volunteers cooked up hot links, hamburgers and chicken during the Juneteenth celebration Saturday in Bremerton. In addition to the barbecue, there was live music, outreach organizations and demonstrations. - Christopher Carter/staff photo
Volunteers cooked up hot links, hamburgers and chicken during the Juneteenth celebration Saturday in Bremerton. In addition to the barbecue, there was live music, outreach organizations and demonstrations.
— image credit: Christopher Carter/staff photo

Curtis Nelson had never heard of Juneteenth, but he knew there would be free food and live music at the park.

The 22-year-old Bremerton man said he has come to Evergreen Rotary Park every third Saturday in June for at least the last five years. To him, it looked like a party for Bremerton's black community.

He was surprised when he discovered the history behind the party.

Juneteenth, usually celebrated on June 19, is an annual holiday marking the announcement in Texas in 1865 that slavery had been legally abolished two years earlier with the Emancipation Proclamation. The delay was due to the precarious paths news took back in the day.

"I just always come here," Nelson said, adding that it's a safe event with a chance to meet up with friends. "It's here to help make peace."

"The food, the people and there are no fights."

The Community Leadership Coalition and Alliance hosted the event and has done so for the last nine years.

Coalition member and history teacher at Central Kitsap High School, JD Sweet, said it's not uncommon for people to show up to the event who have never heard of Juneteenth.

He spent part of the day Saturday handing out packets with information on the day's history and the reasons for celebration.

"It's easier to focus on the fun part, but not the education part," he said.

Part of the problem, Sweet said, stems from the classroom.

"It's not taught in the schools," he said. "Anything regarding the institution of slavery, people want to stay away from."

Sweet said he spends time examining the Emancipation Proclamation with his students each year and encouraging discussion.

Before getting in the barbecue line, Randy Clark sat on a park bench and glanced over the information Sweet handed him.

"A lot of people just think it's a black celebration," he said of the event. "I thought so too."

Clark, 31, is a native of Missouri and said he attended what he believed to be Juneteenth celebrations there — he just didn't know what they were at the time. He said he "didn't want to question" why the event was held.

Now that he knows what Juneteenth is about, he said he feels it's a celebration that's important to communities across the nation, but perhaps more so for communities prone to poverty and violence.

"It's not even relevant to them here in a way," he said of Bremerton, which compares favorably to the fractious community he lived in back in Missouri.

Standing next to a display board with information on the history of Juneteenth, Neavrae Gibson, 24, of Bremerton, said he learned about the history from a teacher in high school in Portsmouth, Va.

He said the event is important because it's one of the only ways to remember a time when a painful era had ended.

"We don't even celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation," he said. "It's just good for unity. Celebrate the fact we are not in that situation anymore."

When not eating barbecue or perusing the history packets, attendees listened to live music, including pieces from the praise team at Emmanuel Apostolic Church in Bremerton.

Vendors from outreach organizations like the YMCA, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Kitsap Mental Health were available as well.

Sweet said the threat of rain may have been a factor in the event's attendance which he said was lower than years past.

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