Sunday, March 3, 2024

Connect with us:

Nine years and counting – Sand Ridge Nature Center continues tradition of Juneteenth celebrations

By Ajia Harris

SOUTH HOLLAND, Ill. (June 22, 2022) – Local residents, elected officials, and others attended the ninth annual Juneteenth Celebration at Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland on Saturday, June 18.

Juneteenth at Sand Ridge

The ceremony kicked off with Cook County Board and Forest Preserve President Toni Preckwinkle, following by Cook County Commissioner Stanley Moore of the 4th District, Commissioner Donna Miller of the 6th District, and Forest Preserves of Cook County Superintendent Arnold Randall. The ceremony concluded with Chicago native, Gospel vocalist, and behavioral interventionist, Fredrica Williams singing the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

From left: Cook County Commissioner Stanley Moore, Cook County Commissioner Donna Miller, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, singer and behavioral interventionist Fredrica Williams, Forest Preserves of Cook County Superintendent Arnold Randall, and Sand Ridge Nature Center Director Stephen DeFalco. (Photo: Ajia Harris)

After the ceremony, Stephen DeFalco, who has been the director of the Sand Ridge Nature Center since 2018, announced the festivities that included a performance by Najwa Dance Corps., the story trail, and other exhibits including one about the underground railroad in the South Suburbs of Chicagoland. Additional exhibits included information about South suburban genealogy; a “Faith in Place” exhibit was led by the energy & climate change outreach coordinator, Samantha Miller; and traditional Juneteenth refreshments like hibiscus tea were served.

Dancing was an upbeat part of the Juneteenth Celebration at Sand Ridge Nature Center on June 18. (Photo: Ajia Harris)
Some of the spectators got in on the dancing as well. (Photo: Ajia Harris)

Juneteenth background

Juneteenth is known as ‘Emancipation Day’, and ‘Freedom Day,’ and is now recognized as a federal holiday. The holiday commemorates the day when enslaved Black Americans in Galveston, Texas found out on June 19, 1865 — two years after the Emancipation Proclamation — that slavery was abolished and that they were now considered free. 

The 13th Amendment, which was passed in 1865, states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” 

Smiling faces and lots of historical information greeted local residents at the Juneteenth Celebration at Sand Ridge Nature Center on June 18. (Photo: Ajia Harris)

The start of celebrating Juneteenth at Sand Ridge

The Juneteenth celebration at Sand Ridge did not always exist. Diane Drew, a former employee who worked at Sand Ridge in 2014, has always celebrated Juneteenth with her family, but wanted the holiday to be recognized at Sand Ridge. 

“My mother is from the South. She never celebrated the Fourth of July and only celebrated Juneteenth with a family cookout,” she said. 

What made Diane want to acknowledge the history of Black people at Sand Ridge came through an encounter with racism.

“There was a visitor [at Sand Ridge] that referred to a new employee, who was working a past Christmas event, as a ‘slave’ which startled [the employee]. When I saw [her], I noticed she was different in a sad way,” Drew said. “I was concerned and that is when I went to the [former director of Sand Ridge] James Carpenter. We both agreed that people needed to be educated in our community that Black people were more than slaves, so I was given the opportunity to put something together.” 

Drew researched and formed a test trial of Juneteenth during Black History Month in February 2014, forming her own exhibits and activities, because she did not have a budget. From this, 135 families came to the Sand Ridge Nature Center, and Drew later asked about commemorating Juneteenth at Sand Ridge. 

Juneteenth-related information was displayed near a log cabin at Sand Ridge Nature Center. (Photo: Ajia Harris)

First Juneteenth Celebration

In 2014, to support her vision for the first Juneteenth celebration at Sand Ridge, Drew created all the activities on her own, which included a story to be read along a hike, Juneteenth bingo with prizes, Freedom papers that were signed with quill feathers and ink, and traditional refreshments like strawberry soda pop, where history was written on the can. She also included a 30-minute video to educate visitors about the holiday. Eight hundred families came to Sand Ridge and attended the first Juneteenth Celebration. 

Spreading the word

“I’d never heard of Juneteenth, and I plan to celebrate and honor it 365 days in the year,” Fredrica Williams said after singing on Saturday. Williams is a former teacher and current assistant dean at CICS Loomis-Longwood School. ”I wish every African American would honor this Juneteenth 365 days. We were free, but yet, [our minds are] still bound within ourselves. Our culture is hurting.”

DeFalco said that one of the main reasons he likes events like Juneteenth is because it draws a lot of community partners and public programming. As for the future of the Juneteenth Celebration at Sand Ridge, Drew hopes to see more of the community’s involvement and would love to see a Juneteenth parade.

Representatives from the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project were present at the event as well. (Photo: Ajia Harris)

The Sand Ridge Nature Center is located at 15891 Paxton Avenue in South Holland.

Ajia Harris
Ajia Harris
Ajia G. Harris is an up-and-coming journalist earning a degree in journalism with a minor in broadcasting from Western Illinois University. She enjoys examining history and how it relates to the present and future. She also enjoys all aspects of media, but no matter the format, telling and writing compelling, authentic, and relevant stories is what resonates with her.