‘We still have a long way to go’. La Grange Juneteenth celebration focuses on improving race relations

La Grange Juneteenth celebration focuses on improving race relations

Pastor Michael Henderson of Second Baptist Church in La Grange leads the singing of "Lift Every Voice" during the Juneteenth Celebration in La Grange. June 20, 2022

While progress has been made in race relations, we still have a long way to go.

Such was the prevailing sentiment at a Juneteenth celebration Monday at the La Grange Community Center, 200 S. Washington Ave.

“Absolutely we do,” said Bessie Boyd, a member of the board at La Grange School District 102 who spoke at the event.

“We talk about equity and people still don’t understand that ‘equity’ doesn’t mean taking from your child. It means giving my child what he or she needs,” Boyd said.

“[Some people think] if you get something that’s taking something away from me. And that’s not the case. [It’s about] getting everyone to understand we are all equal and everybody deserves the same.”

Juneteenth, the newest of 11 federal holidays, marks the events of June, 19, 1865, when news of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves finally made it to Texas, some six months later. In those pre-internet or phone days, even the best of news traveled slowly across America.

This is the second year that Juneteenth has been celebrated as a federal holiday.

Monday’s event in La Grange, attended by about 150 Black and white people, had several guest speakers including local ministers and Village President Mark Kuchler.

“Today’s theme is no one is free until everyone is free,” Kuchler said. “We can agree there is nothing more fundamentally true than that.

“I think it means equal access to education, equal access to housing, equal access to jobs and employment opportunities and equal access to the legal justice system. That’s what we’re here to celebrate and push forward.”

The keynote speaker was the Rev. Wheeler Parker, pastor of Argo Temple Church of God in Christ, 7435 W. 64th St., Summit.

Parker, 83, knows firsthand about the evils of racism and has made his life’s work fighting it from his pulpit and at events.

Parker was with his cousin Emmitt Till in Mississippi in August 1955 when the Chicago teen was lynched after being abducted from a relative’s home at 2:30 a.m. on a Sunday.

Or, as Parker said, at a time “when people are getting ready to go to church.”

Parker grew up in Mississippi before moving to Chicago with his mother and siblings.

“If you haven’t lived in the South, you have no idea what it was like,” he said.

Till, 14, was lynched several days after he allegedly whistled at a white woman in a store. Two men were acquitted by an all-white jury. Decades later, his accuser recanted her story.

“[Till] had no idea about the people he was dealing with,” Parker said.

After sharing his chilling memories, Parker discussed Juneteenth.

“Juneteenth, how do you celebrate it? Take full advantage of what we have and what we can do. Nobody can stop you from getting what you’re supposed to get,” Parker said.

He urged pastors to get more involved.

“Our churches have to do a better job. The pastors, they don’t like when I say it,” Parker said.

“Excuse me, but the stuff that’s going on in our neighborhoods, we’ve got to do something about it. If we don’t, it’s not going to be done,” he said.

Parker led the group in a brief chant of “Don’t hate, appreciate.”

Afterward, Doris Lewis, who lives in Chicago, said “[Parker] was there. Imagine how that feels. That’s something I’ll take home with me.”

Lewis, who is Black and “past 70,” sat beside her friend, Sister Julie Cannon, who is white and 88.

“It was highly organized, a very worthwhile event. The presentations were outstanding, a lot of outreach to have a diverse group of people here, white and Black,” Cannon said.

“I’ve worked with all kinds of people in my life, so the idea of [working with] persons of color is natural to me. We all have to learn to respect, no matter what.”

Lewis agreed, saying “there’s so much more to do.”

“I wish we could get rid of the hate,” Lewis said. “I open my phone this morning and some woman was harassing an Asian women in New York. She was arrested. I don’t get it.”

The event was co-sponsored by Congregation of Sisters of St. Joseph of La Grange Park, the CommUNITY Diversity Group of La Grange, Park District of La Grange and La Grange east side community residents.

Refreshments such as Twizzlers, Zingers and cold cans of cherry Diet 7-Up or Strawberry Crush all had the color of Juneteenth, which is red.

Red represents the blood that was shed over the years. Red is also the color used in Africa to symbolize strength, spirituality, life and death, according to a flyer handed out to guests.

Black businesswoman Ren’ee Hodges, owner of Bessie’s Beauty Shop in La Grange, received a certificate noting her contributions to the community. Her mother opened the salon at 5 Sawyer Ave. in June of 1963.