Playful conversations and the aroma of tikka spice filled the air on a warm summer evening in downtown Durango. About 100 people gathered in Buckley Park on Monday to celebrate Juneteenth.
A line of people waiting to indulge in Chef Arnold Safari Ngumbo’s authentic African food snaked through the park while children participated in face-painting and student leaders spoke about the importance of the federal holiday.
Juneteenth celebrates the official ending of slavery in the United States after the Civil War. It was on June 19, 1865, that Union army troops declared that more than 250,000 enslaved Black people were free in the state of Texas by the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Can I get a raise of hands: If you know why we are celebrating Juneteenth today, raise your hand,” Tracy Jones, director of Southwest Movement for Black Lives, said.
The majority of the crowd raised their hands in the air.
“Yay! That makes me so happy,” Jones said. “So many people don’t know about or don’t recognize this holiday.”
The Southwest Movement for Black Lives hosted the celebration for the third consecutive year with the goal of educating and bringing together the Durango community. The event featured various organizations, including the Durango High School Black Student Alliance, Sexual Assault Services Organization, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains and the Four Corners Alliance for Diversity.
Destiny Morgan, a Fort Lewis College graduate and former president of the FLC Black Student Union, spoke at the event. She is from Ganado, Arizona, and traveled three hours for the Durango Junteenth celebration. She began her speech by greeting everyone in the Navajo language.
“We can’t change our past,” she said. “But we can understand, learn and educate our future generations about the significance and importance of this day.”
Morgan, who is African American and Navajo, grew up on the Navajo reservation. She said her Black identity was rejected by most of her peers, and she took it upon herself to learn about African American history and liberation.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh you’re half Black and half Navajo.’ No, I’m not half anything, I’m not half a person, you know?” she said. “I learned to validate myself and just allow my backgrounds and cultures to live in harmony. I’m allowed to be both.”
Morgan said it brings her joy to see people from different cultures and backgrounds, even if they aren’t a minority, come together and celebrate one of the most important days in history.
Lyric Rodriguez, a recent DHS graduate and former president of the Black Student Alliance, also spoke at the park and preformed “Love On The Brain,” by R&B singer Rihanna. She said she found a sense of community through her organization at DHS and wanted to share it with everyone else.
Within 20 minutes of the celebration, Chef Safari’s fried plantains, tikka fried chicken, vegetable and beef samosas, cumin meatballs and beet root hummus disappeared from underneath his tent. Safari has served his African cuisine at the past three Juneteenth celebrations.
“This (the Juneteenth event) means a lot because so many unspoken things which happened before are being discussed now,” he said. “It’s our own way of educating, not forgetting, but we’re educating one another.”
Safari values his community. Growing up in a small Kenyan village, he said they relied on each other for everything. When Safari and his family first moved to Durango 15 years ago, they delivered homemade African Christmas cakes to each of their neighbors for the holidays. He said it was important that everyone on his street knew him, could greet him and trusted him.
“Your neighbors are your brothers, your friends, your closest family,” he said. “All of these people here are my neighbors.”
Safari plans to serve his food at Durango’s future Juneteenth celebrations and continue to meet activists and community members.
“As you can see here, we are the minority, but I don't feel lost,” he said. “You know, I know everyone by name and they know me.”