Celebrating Juneteenth 2024 and reflecting on local Black history

Jun 19, 2024, 1:22 PM | Updated: 1:26 pm

Photo: A Seattle Post-Intelligencer photo from the collection of the Museum of History & Industry (...

A Seattle Post-Intelligencer photo from the collection of the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) shows a Juneteenth celebration in 2001 at the Southeast Family Center on Beacon Hill in Seattle. (Photo courtesy of MOHAI)

(Photo courtesy of MOHAI)

Wednesday, June 19 is Juneteenth 2024, a federal holiday recognizing the delayed liberation that followed the Emancipation Proclamation 160 years ago, and which more broadly acknowledges the role of slavery in American history. Government offices are closed and there’s no mail delivery, but a celebration is happening in Seattle’s Central District at Jimi Hendrix Park.

That’s where we caught up with Stephanie Johnson-Toliver, president of the Black Heritage Society of Washington. These are lightly edited highlights from a live interview with Ms. Johnson-Toliver that was broadcast on “Seattle’s Morning News.”

Feliks Banel: It is a beautiful morning here at Jimi Hendrix Park, which is right next to the old Colman School along the south side of I-90 just west of the Mount Baker Tunnel. This is a historic location. The school was occupied 40 years ago (by activists) and became the Northwest African American Museum.

Today, there’s going to be a big event. The Africatown Community Land Trust is putting on eight hours of music and family entertainment as part of its Summer of Soul series. It’s free admission, but you have to register online.

Joining me here now is a great friend of “Seattle’s Morning News.” Stephanie Johnson-Toliver is president of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State. She’s here to give us a bigger picture perspective on Black history around our area on this Juneteenth holiday.

One of the things I’ve been wondering about is the Juneteenth holiday is not new by any stretch of the imagination, but its status as a federal holiday is really new – I think this is only the fourth national observation. So I was wondering, Stephanie, has this national holiday changed the work you do with the Black Heritage Society in terms of preserving and sharing African American history?

Stephanie Johnson-Toliver: It’s a beautiful day at Jimi Hendrix Park. The sun’s out, and the tradition and long celebration, and commemoration of Juneteenth, you’re right, is not new. It was first celebrated in 1890 in Washington State. Seattle residents jumped on a train from downtown Seattle and headed to Kent for a big celebration. But I think as a federal holiday, what it does is to bring more visibility to that struggle, the tenacity within the community to thrive, and gives us the opportunity to talk about understanding the liberation of Black people.

Banel: You and I have talked about this before, we wrestle with this notion. You have February as Black History Month, but really, every month is Black History Month. But I mean, it’s nice to have attention called to a specific ethnic group (at a specific time of year), but it’s also important for people to realize that Black history is just local history.

Johnson-Toliver: Yeah!

Banel: (With this in mind), what kind of projects is the Black Heritage Society of Washington working on lately?

Johnson-Toliver: Well, we’re really excited recently, mostly, about the things that are behind the scenes that people don’t see. We are really moving strongly toward digitizing our collection, a new collections management system, which is huge for us, that will allow us to share more broadly our collections. And so that work is very important for us right now. And then we’re working in community with other groups on oral histories, we understand the importance of collecting the stories of people, and documenting our history in Washington State. So that, along with other partnerships, our partnership with the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) and others, this is something that we continue to do.

Banel: I love museums, but what I love more than museums are those parts of the community where something happened or somebody lived or something like that. And oftentimes, there’s not even interpretive signage, you just have to kind of have to know the information or look up it on an app or something (one example is an old house that was once home to Annie Smith’s restaurant, an eatery featured in the Green Book listings for Seattle). Do you have favorite places like that, that are “Black history spots” in the Seattle area, but that maybe aren’t known about by too many people?

Johnson-Toliver: I love that question. Because every day, I and others, pass these sites and locations and have no idea what happened there. So whether it was a place where there was joy or harm, or some sort of civic engagement, we may not know. So I’ve been thinking as we approach summer (that) the Madison Street corridor that was so important to the Black community. In the 1920s 30s and 40s, it was a vibrant business hub that celebrated the need in the community, the Black community, but also the livelihood and lifted that livelihood.

So there were sites along Madison. (One place) was a spot just across the street, kitty-corner from where the Cayton Corner Park is now happening at 19th and Madison. It was a gas station owned by a man by the name of Eugene Moszee who was a widely known activist in Seattle. And he was the victim of a police shootout on that corner. So it’s a huge story that created a controversy in Seattle. But not many people know that about (it) as they round that corner or pass that corner.

But the Madison Street corridor was also this place of joy, where the first Mardi Gras parade and festival (in Seattle) happened. It started at 21st and Madison and moved around and southward and then back to Union Street and then back up the street and was a joy in the community. And what it’s done is to create a new and vibrant participation and community that is led by Africatown, the Umoja Fest that happens during the summer, that coordinates with Seafair.

So there’s much, much good energy and civic engagement opportunities to remember about the Madison Street corridor again. I should say that Jackie Lawson, who was one of the co-founders of the Black Heritage Society, wrote a little booklet that was called “Let’s Take A Walk” that is now available at Seattle Public Library online. They digitized that little booklet that talks about the businesses and the people who lived there.

Banel: Stephanie Johnson-Toliver, president of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State, thanks for joining us so early here in the morning at Colman School and Northwest African American Museum and Jimi Hendrix Park where a celebration (will be held).

Go online to to register for this event, all day, noon to 8:00 p.m. for the whole family, marking the Juneteenth holiday here in Seattle. I really appreciate the work that the Black Heritage Society has done. I’ve known you for more than thirty years. I think the way the organization — the programs you guys are providing now, and the archival stuff you’re saving — you guys are a tremendous asset to the community.

You can hear Feliks Banel every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien. Read more from Feliks here and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks. You can also follow Feliks on X.

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Celebrating Juneteenth 2024 and reflecting on local Black history