Monday, June 19, 2023

Woodstock’s First Juneteenth—Freedom Day Festival Was a Joyous Afternoon

From left to right Ken Davis, Darlene Brown, and host Gloria Van Hoff at opening.

It was a near ideal Saturday afternoon on Woodstock Square for McHenry Countys inaugural Junteenth—Freedom Day Festival.  There was an excited but chill vibe as people gathered as organizer/host Gloria Van Hof, a long time social justice activist and first term McHenry County Board member stepped to the mic in the Gazebo to greet the gathering crowd.

Organizing Committee Member Emily Ferguson and Rev. Norval Brown.

Rev. Norval Brown, Lead Pastor of the Cary United Methodist Church, resplendent in a white and gold dashiki and cap opened the proceedings with an inspiring benediction.

Darlene Benton singing from the Woodstock Square Gazebo.

Things got cooking when vocalist Darlene Benton performed rousing renditions of America the Beautiful and Lift Every Voice and Sing, the song often called the Black National Anthem.

The Old Man listens to the program from the Tree of Life U.U. Congregation information table.

Then it was time for my small part—a brief recounting of the origins and history of Juneteenth including a reading of the Order that set it in motion.  Here is the text of those brief remarks:

Although President Abraham Lincoln had issued his Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 which freed enslaved persons in states and parts of states under active rebellion in the Civil War,  most of those in the West did not hear the news until significantly later.  The Union Army and Navy seized control of the length of the Mississippi River that summer, effectively cutting the Confederacy in two and isolating areas west of Louisiana and Arkansas.

Word did seep through here and there, but slave owners were careful to keep the news from their human chattel.  In no place was this truer than in and around the Texas port of Galveston, which was the last open port in the Confederacy and an important source of revenue from exporting cotton.

The local African-American population was even more ignorant of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified and proclaimed in December 1865, and made slavery finally illegal in the entire United States.

All of that changed when Major General Gordon Granger in command of the District of Texas arrived in Galveston with a large contingent of Federal Troops.  Almost immediately after securing the port and city, Granger issued his historic General Order #3 announcing the end of slavery and his enforcement of it.

Accounts vary as to whether Granger, his Assistant Adjutant General, Major F. W. Emery, or some other subordinate officer actually read the Order aloud to any assemblage.  It may have simply been posted around the city and copies sent to major local slave holders.  At any rate, the word  spread rapidly and there was much celebration in the streets under the protection of the Army.

Even more important was General Gordon’s vigorous enforcement of the order.

This is the text of the terse order:

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection therefore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”

A year later a commemoration was held which became an annual celebration in Texas, spread to other areas of the South, and during the Civil Rights Era all across the country celebrating not only what became known as Juneteenth, but all of the days of Jubilee whenever former enslaved people first heard of their liberation.


Emily Ferguson with feature Speaker Rodney Katushabe.

After a soaring rendition of Sam Cooks Darlene Benton accompanied by the Ken Davis Project, Organizing Committee Member Emily Ferguson introduced the featured speaker of the day  by McHenry County College top honor student and young entrepreneur Rodney Katushabe.  He spoke from the unique perspective of a young Ugandan immigrant and of the obstacles and challenges he needed to overcome.


People check out vendors and community groups and food truck on the street.

Meanwhile, folks strolled the Square checking out the vendors and community organization booths or visited food trucks along Van Buren Street—El Taco Feliz, Holy Smokes BBQ, and Tropical Chill Ice Cream Shop.

Festival organizer and host Gloria Van Hoff took time to pose with volunteers from the anti-gun violence group Moms Demand Action.

Gloria Van Hoff and fellow McHenry County Board Member Pamela Althoff recounted how they came together years ago to document and present the history of the Underground Railroad here and described local sites.  Next year they hope to expand Juneteenth—Freedom Day to a two-day event including a full Underground Railroad program and possible tour on Saturday.

Ken Davis and his band and Darlene Benton came on with Wake Up Everybody by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes.

Arlene Lynes of Read Between the Lynes Bookstore gathered children in front of the Gazebo to read a picture book about the Juneteenth celebration in contemporary Texas.

Dee Darling, President of Cary Elementary District #26 announced plans to raise money for and award a scholarship for a Black student from McHenry to be awarded next year.  The scholarship will be applicable to both college and trade school.  Supporters were directed to the Juneteenth—Freedom Day tent to sign up for information or to donate funds.  Scholarship donations will soon be able to be posted on the Juneteenth website.

It was just warm enough for people to seek out the shade to listen to the program.

Organizing Committee member and County Board Member Lou Ness entitled her remarks I’m Not Racist, My Best Friend is Black.  She challenged the assumptions and fragility of even the best intentioned white people and asked them to face and acknowledge the cultural racism they have absorbed in their lifetimes.  She drew on her experiences as an out gay person and the painful lessons she had to learn to be a true and effective ally by following the lead of African-Americans or any historically oppressed people.

Capping the program was an appearance by Congressman Bill Foster who described his family’s long time commitment to racial justice including his father, a Justice Department attorney, who drafted many of the provisions to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1963 and a direct ancestor who commanded a regiment of U.S. Colored Troops in New Orleans during the Civil War.  He also read and presented copies of his citation of the Juneteenth—Freedom Day Festival in McHenry from the Congressional Record.  He also presented handsome copies of the document to members of the Organizing Committee.  The text read as follows:


Mr. Speaker, I rise today to recognize McHenry County’s first Juneteenth celebration, entitled Juneteenth Freedom Day: Emancipation. Jubilation. Education. This event commemorates June 19, 1865, the date in which federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to ensure that all enslaved people be freed: coming two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.


Juneteenth is a day of jubilee to celebrate the end of slavery, but it also is a day to recognize that the fight continues for equal rights and to end systemic racism. It is a time to reflect on the struggles of African Americans, as well as an opportunity to recognize the past and present achievements of the African American community.


The McHenry County celebration in Woodstock, Illinois serves as a celebration of the progress attained by generations who fought for freedoms and rights, and as a reminder of the work still needed to ensure a brighter, more equitable world for all children and future generations. By featuring notable speakers, musical performances, food, and other cultural activities, McHenry County is taking admirable steps toward this recognition and inclusivity.


I ask you all to join me in thanking Gloria Van Hof, Pamela Althoff, Deanna `Dee' Darling, Emily Ferguson, Patrick Murfin, Louisett `Lou' Ness, Regina Rakoncay, Jennifarre Urch, and many others for bringing this celebration to fruition in McHenry County. May this be an annual

event that gains in popularity and impact for many years to come.


—Bill Foster


                                                Festival coverage in the Northwest Herald.

Rev. Norval Brown returned for a benediction that reflected the joy, hope, and sense of community and commitment inspired by the event.

The Ken Davis Project and Darlene Benton jammed an exciting conclusion of the program.

Everyone I spoke to was impressed and inspired by the Festival and looks forward to a bigger and better one next year.



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