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In its third year as a federal holiday, Juneteenth continues to grow in Iowa

  Iowa artist Tina Haas Findlay performs with a band at X B K in Des Moines.
Iowa PBS
Iowa artist Tina Haas Findlay performs "Lift Every Voice And Sing" at xBk Live in Des Moines as part of the 'Juneteenth: The Movement' live concert on June 19, 2021. The concert was a partnership between xBk, Iowa Public Radio and Iowa PBS.

Juneteenth didn't become a federal holiday until 2021, but has been celebrated since 1865. And in Iowa, emancipation celebrations were first recorded in 1855, with 200 celebrations in 30 different Iowa communities being recorded throughout the next century.

Early celebrations in local communities would include decorating horses and carts, with processions around the town square to follow. There were flags, posters of Abraham Lincoln, picnics and dances — and someone would read the Emancipation Proclamation. These celebrations were large — often drawing up to 5,000 people to Des Moines. Black communities were also much larger in certain parts of Iowa (including Keokuk and Mt. Pleasant) during this time, notes Leslie Shwam, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Iowa.

Dwana Bradley, who serves on the school board for Des Moines Public Schools, educates people about Juneteenth. She says her goal is for people to do research on their own and to be "mindful of members who look like me in their community."

"You may not know what it feels like to be stopped by the police. You may not know what it feels like to be followed in a store. You might not know what it's like to not have the proper health care, or you might not know what it feels like to be denied something because of your race, but I've got a handful of people over here who have a story to tell you, and if you would just give them a little bit of your time, I guarantee you, you might change your perspective a little bit," she said on IPR's River to River.

The Des Moines Public Library offers events for Juneteenth including crafts, scavenger hunts and storytimes. Bradley says she does events with kids and adults, and, as a teacher, she enjoys the opportunity to educate everyone she can.

Bradley says she hopes that every city across Iowa will feel comfortable enough to offer some form of education about Juneteenth and to discuss the parts of the history that are uncomfortable. She also hopes Iowa will be receptive to talking to kids about why Juneteenth is important.

"It's really surprising to me that people want to stop us from talking about history, because I want to tell people so bad 'you weren't there,'" she said. "None of us were there when these things happened."

Sheritta Stokes, co-director of the 1619 Freedom School in Waterloo, says there is still a lot of work to do educating people about Juneteenth and Black history. Stokes says there is backlash from people who say Black Americans should just celebrate the 4th of July — but Independence Day celebrates a date in history when slavery was still legal.

"We tend not to acknowledge that slavery was practiced in Iowa," says Leslie Shwam. "Some people were held in slavery illegally in Iowa through the 1850s."

In her 2003 article "Emancipation Day Celebrations: The Commemoration of Slavery and Freedom in Iowa," Shwam opens with a quote from John Thompson, an editor for the Black newspaper the Iowa Bystander. In 1898, at the Des Moines emancipation day celebration, Thompson gave the keynote address:

"Think of being compelled to live all of your life with the man who is stealing the babies from your cradle and you dare not say one word; think of being compelled to associate with the despised and hated southerner who is constantly robbing you; think of being compelled to separate from your dear brother, loving sister, only father and mother, never to see them again. The agonizing groans of mothers when separated from their crying children were heart piercing. See the slave scarred veterans who are before me today and have witness to their once cruel and inhuman treatment."
John Thompson, 1898

She says the reason Juneteenth has not been more widely celebrated is because of America's history of racism. "We have undervalued and tried to turn away from African American history in our nation," she said.

But since becoming a federal holiday, Bradley says people are starting to learn about Juneteenth and its meaning and wanting to find out more.

"It started small and now it's grown into something," she said.

Phineas Pope served as a digital production assistant at Iowa Public Radio from 2023 - 2024.
Caitlin Troutman is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio
Dani Gehr is a producer for River to River and Talk of Iowa. Dani came to Iowa from her hometown in the northwest suburbs of Chicago to attend Iowa State University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in journalism, international studies and French. Before coming to IPR, Dani covered local government in Story County for the Ames Tribune and Des Moines Register.
Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River