‘There is hope for us all’: Sterling’s annual Juneteenth event celebrates freedom, diversity

Don Harts  and his son Aaron Harts spread a message of positivity and good vibes from their booth, Kemetic Creations, at Saturday's Juneteenth celebration in downtown Sterling.

STERLING – The annual Juneteenth celebration Saturday, organized by the Diversity Committee of the Sauk Valley and the YWCA, was a sign of progress and hope for the future for local members of the African American community.

“We are heading in the right direction as a society. I believe that,” Sterling native Don Harts said. “We need to stick together and thrive for that to continue to happen. I know it’s happening. I just want to see more of it. That’s the reason we come out.”

Don and his son, Aaron Harts, believe in spreading positivity through community interaction and exposure.

“The vibe of the people has been so happy today. Everyone has been in a great mood, and that energy is contagious,” Aaron Harts said. “I hope more people will be open to exploring cultures and ideas that are different from their own. Events like this help people to do that, and I’m happy to know people are getting something out of it the way I do.”

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved African Americans of their freedom two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Rashaad Lane, a member of the Diversity Committee, echoed that sentiment and said he believes cultural exposure tears down divisions between people.

“I think when we are more aware of what other cultures celebrate, it brings us closer together,” Lane said.

“It’s no different than St. Patrick’s Day or Cinco de Mayo; the more I know about those cultures and celebrations, the more I want to be a part of them/

“We are more alike than we are different, and that’s what I hope people take away from today.”

“Every year, the celebration and support get bigger and bigger,” said Tina Wren, committee president. “For me, I want the community to understand what is the purpose of Juneteenth and why we celebrate it. The diversity, hard work, the dedication, and what it meant for all those individuals years ago to finally feel like they were one and whole in the community and to be free like everyone else.”

Wren and Lane attribute the event’s success to the collaborative support of businesses, churches, and community volunteers throughout Lee and Whiteside county. Local businesses came together to provide free food and drink for the event, and attendees got to witness and try their hand at authentic African drumming, instructed by Philip Seward of Hand and Heart Drumming.

Juneteenth also is about preserving history and remembering the struggles of those who came before.

Carol Ann Cooper pays homage to her ancestors by commemorating their journeys to freedom in her patchwork quilts.

Each block in her quilts features a unique and vibrantly colored geometric shape or pattern representing a piece of the story of an enslaved person’s road to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Cooper knows these stories intimately. Her grandmother lived in the South, where pockets of slavery continued after the proclamation of 1865.

“For me, Juneteenth means that my ancestors were finally freed. I was born only two generations from slavery,” Cooper said. “I appreciate the values my parents and grandmother taught us. No matter what happens, you treat people with dignity and respect regardless of race.”

Lonnie Chattic is a teacher at Reagan Middle School in Dixon. She grew up on Rainbow Plantation with her sisters Catherine Gibson, Emma Harden, Ella Phillips, and Mattie Garrett. They lived through segregation, witnessed the progress made during the Civil Rights Movement, and believe future generations will continue that progress.

Sisters Catherine Gibson, left, Lonnie Chattic, Emma Harden, Ella Phillips, and Mattie Garrett celebrate Juneteenth by spreading education about African American history and heritage. June 18, 2022.

“Today’s children are more progressive. They just play together and enjoy one another, and they don’t even think about things like skin color,” Chattic said.

“That’s what we want to see and what the whole world needs to understand. That we are all one and the same.

“If our children have learned to look past their differences, there is hope for us all.”