A year after downtown protests, Juneteenth Freedom Fest aims to bring community together

The free downtown event on Saturday, June 19 promises to not only shine a spotlight on Karamu House, the oldest Black theater in the country, but also to be a coming out party for Cleveland as pandemic restrictions are lifted and the city’s glorious summer gets into full swing.


Karamu House’s “Freedom on Juneteenth.”

Karamu House’s “Freedom on Juneteenth.”

The May 30, 2020 protests marked a turning point for downtown Cleveland. After nine hours of civil unrest, protesters caused more than $6 million in damage to Cleveland businesses. The events resulted in a soul-searching realization that Cleveland has a lot of work to do to reckon with racial inequities in the wake of George Floyd’s tragic murder.

Many organizations pledged to do business differently in the wake of George Floyd’s death. One of these was Downtown Cleveland Alliance (DCA), which partnered with other groups in the wake of the protests to launch Voices of CLE, a mural project which engaged Black artists in painting murals about racial justice on boarded-up buildings in downtown Cleveland.

Now, a little more than a year after the events of May 30 rocked downtown Cleveland, DCA has partnered with Karamu House and others to create the Juneteenth Freedom Fest celebration. The free event on Saturday, June 19 promises to not only shine a spotlight on Karamu, the oldest Black theater in the country, but also to be a bit of a coming out party for Cleveland as pandemic restrictions are lifted and the city’s glorious summer gets into full swing.


Mall C in downtown Cleveland.

Mall C in downtown Cleveland.

“We’re excited to highlight Karamu in downtown Cleveland on Juneteenth,” said Michael Deemer, interim President and CEO of DCA. “Over the past year, we’ve confronted long-simmering issues of racial equity in ways that were long overdue. This is a very powerful and important new partnership, and it’s the only time that Karamu has been recognized downtown. We’re trying to model the welcoming and inclusive place that we’re trying to build downtown.”

“I have to say that DCA came to us and mentioned that they had an idea about bringing the community together on Juneteenth,” said Karamu House President and CEO Tony Sias at the City Club on Friday, June 4. “Juneteenth celebrations have been happening in pockets of the community for many years. But we want to come together in a central location downtown to celebrate Juneteenth.”

The Juneteenth Freedom Fest in downtown Cleveland runs Saturday, June 19 from 12-10 pm on Mall C. The daylong event will feature family-friendly activities and performances, food and beverage concessions, a performance of Karamu’s “Freedom on Juneteenth: Songs of Liberation,” performances by Grammy-winning artists Terri Lynne Carrington and Social Science, Lisa Fischer and Maimouna “Mumu Fresh” Youssef, and a fireworks display.


Tony Sias of Karamu House.

Tony Sias of Karamu House.

Deemer said the event will build on the success of the NFL Draft, the first major event downtown in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Fifty percent of the vendors at the recent Draft events were women- and minority-owned, he said. DCA is also now working with Browns player Myles Garrett to create more Voices of CLE murals downtown this summer, Deemer said the organization is working to recruit more Black-owned businesses downtown.

Of bringing events back downtown, Deemer said, “It feels great. Downtowns thrive on people and the energy of groups of people working, playing and visiting. We’ve had our growing cadre of residents downtown, but we’ve been largely starved of office workers and visitors. To see not only residential activity growing, but also office and visitors, it’s exciting. We’re seeing more and more people coming out. It’s a return to normalcy that we all so desperately need.”

Downtown Cleveland Alliance is an underwriter of The Land, providing support for coverage of the downtown neighborhood.

Lee Chilcote is a freelance writer and editor of The Land.

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