Events Across Arizona celebrate African American freedom

By Joanna Dodder Nellans | Photos by Wayne Parham

Since Juneteenth became an official federal holiday two years ago, polls show Americans have been steadily gaining a better understanding of its meaning.

“It’s as important as celebrating the Fourth of July,” said Charles Fanniel, Arizona president of the NAACP. “It was an historic day.”

Juneteenth celebrates June 19, 1865, the day this country’s last Confederate slaves were freed in Texas. The Emancipation Proclamation declared that slaves in Confederate states were free on Jan. 1, 1863. The Confederacy surrendered on April 9, 1865. But in practice, unless slaves escaped north, their freedom remained elusive until Union troops arrived to enforce it.

By the following year, Blacks already were celebrating June 19. Charles said the Fanniel family was celebrating in Texas, where his once-enslaved great-grandfather had become a sharecropper and would eventually own 98 acres that remain in the Fanniel family today.

Community-wide celebrations have been occurring in Phoenix since at least 1911. One of the largest is the Valley of the Sun Juneteenth Celebration at historic Eastlake Park, long a gathering and organizing place for African Americans. It features speeches about the importance of the holiday, music, educational booths, food trucks and vendors. Charles enjoys attending this event every year. He noted that it takes place during the evening hours, and many activities occur in the shade or indoors.

For those worried about the valley heat, check out the Juneteenth celebration at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. The Southside Community Association expanded its party to three days last year. The free event features a formal ball/gala Friday, festival with music and vendors on Saturday, and gospel concert Sunday, SCA Executive Director Deborah Harris related.

The Arizona Historical Society organized one of the newer annual Juneteenth celebrations at the Arizona Heritage Center in Tempe’s Papago Park last year, in honor of the new national holiday. It features educational displays, performances, activities, and food. This year’s event especially honors Black firefighters. The theme this year is “Roads to Freedom,” commemorating the many ways people reach freedom.

“We want to celebrate lots of different communities here,” said Todd Bailey, Arizona Historical Society special projects coordinator. Todd painted a portrait of his grandmother for an exhibit titled “Matriarchs of Washington Park.” Bruce Nelson curated this exhibit about women who persevered through racism in segregated Mesa, and he’s working on a related book and documentary.

Todd said he moved East for awhile but eventually returned home to Arizona, where he’s enjoyed learning more about Arizona’s Black history over the years. Some of that learning came from his own family, of course.

“The school systems here really don’t tell you a lot about Black history,” Bailey related. And today, he noted, some people are still trying to suppress it.

For more information about Juneteenth, visit