Celebrating Juneteenth is a staple in Memphis, a city of good abode overlooking the Mississippi River,
where revelers and celebrants converge in a park setting to celebrate the end of slavery in the United
On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law the groundbreaking Senate Bill 475, i.e., the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, which observes June 19 as a federal holiday in the United States. It is now one of 11 federal holidays commemorating June 19, 1865, when Union Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, and announced that all enslaved people were free.
It was a herculean effort on the part of today’s Juneteenth activists, petitioners, formidable leaders and the Black Lives Matter Movement that prompted Congress to act and President Biden to affix his signature following a House vote of 415-14. It was a day of jubilee for African Americans. Two days later, the new the federal holiday was observed.
While Juneteenth has been observed in Memphis for nearly three decades, the Memphis Juneteenth Festival began in Historic Douglass Park when it was named The Juneteenth Freedom & Heritage Festival, the brainchild of Glynn Johns-Reed, who founded the festival in 1993. As executive director, Johns-Reed promoted the festival, created awareness, and educated celebrants on the importance of Juneteenth and its significance to African American culture.
In 2011, Reed turned over the reins of leadership to Telisa Franklin, an entrepreneur, and businesswoman who had been carving out a niche in the community as a formidable leader and community servant. With the Juneteenth festival in capable hands, Franklin opted to move the festival from Historic Douglass Park in 2014 to Historic Robert R. Church Park on “World Famous” Beale Street.
Franklin changed the location and the name to The Juneteenth Urban Musical Festival to increase the festival's appeal to a wider audience and to strengthen its brand. While still creating awareness, educating celebrants and promoting the festival, the festival’s appeal and historic significance did not change and continued to feature a slate of musical acts, food vendors, entertainment, exhibits, a kid’s zone, and more.
In 2021, Franklin moved The Juneteenth Urban Musical Festival from the Historic Robert R. Church Park to Health Sciences Park at the intersection of Madison Avenue and South Dunlap Street in the medical district. The move was conducive to increasing attendance from a diverse community of celebrants, which, again, prompted a name change: The Memphis Juneteenth Festival.
The park was originally named for the infamous Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave owner and trader and early Ku Klux Klan leader. Forrest was interred with his wife beneath a bronze statue of himself astride a horse on a pedestal before the statue and pedestal were removed and their
bodies exhumed and moved to a museum hundreds of miles away.
The Memphis Juneteenth Festival is held each year in Memphis during Father’s Day weekend for three fun-filled days and complete with eclectic music (soul, R&B, gospel, hip-hop and other genres), choirs, entertainment, arts & crafts, food vendors (funnel cakes, turkey legs, barbeque, snow cones, hot dogs, burgers, chicken, etc.), majorettes, dancers, steppers, cheerleaders, a car and bike show, activities for seniors and kids, and more.
Juneteenth is one of Memphis’ longest-running African American celebrations for children, adults and entire families frolicking each year to the park to commemorate the end of slavery after President Lincoln signed into law the Emancipation Proclamation. The newly minted holiday now affirms the importance of Juneteenth and its cultural significance to African Americans and the broader community.
In addition to the festival’s significance and nationwide acceptance via the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, festivalgoers can look forward to the annual Juneteenth Career and Health Fair Expo, the Memphis Juneteenth Lifetime Achievement Awards, the Juneteenth Ultimate Dance Showdown, Food Truck Sunday, and Praise Fest at Juneteenth.
The Memphis Juneteenth Festival draws anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 celebrants each year, including tourists that leisurely stroll the park grounds to partake of African American culture, food, entertainment, and the overall significance of Juneteenth. Some of them learn for the first time why it is important for African Americans to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.
Freeing the last African-American slaves in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, was the beginning of an annual celebration across the country. One hundred and fifty-six years later, June 19 is now a federal holiday in the United States. The Memphis Juneteenth Festival had been out-front since its founding and continues to be a staple in the Memphis community.