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Hundreds of people attended the 54th Annual Sonoma County MLK/Juneteenth Community Festival on Saturday at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park in Santa Rosa.

The event brought together families with children, scores of local community leaders, youth advocates and government officials for a sunny afternoon of food, music and inspiring words about the ongoing struggle for equality and justice.

The festival started with a 9 a.m. march from Juilliard Park to MLK Jr. Memorial Park, where a stage and more than 50 vendors were set up near the basketball court.

Celeste Austin, a member of the Juneteenth planning committee, recalled the history of Juneteenth, which has been celebrated as a federal holiday since 2021.

President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, abolished slavery in rebel southern states with the Emancipation Proclamation. But it wasn’t until late 1865, when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, that slavery was ended throughout the nation following the end of the Civil War.

Austin explained how on June 19, 1865, Union troops arrived in Galvaston, Texas, and announced that some 250,000 black slaves were actually now free by executive degree. The day came to be known as Juneteenth.

“Talk about a celebration,” Austin said. “Talk about a celebration. The slaves were jubilant, they were excited, they were glad to be free.”

Austin added, “we have to really have respect for our foremothers, forefathers and our ancestors for what they went through for us to be standing here today.”

The event also featured a “libation ceremony,” a ritual that involves pouring out liquid in honor of deceased loved ones, ancestors or beloved community leaders.

The names included civil right leaders and youth advocates Vince Harper, Dyan Foster, Rev. James Coffee and Carole Ellis. Water was poured out of a wooden bowl by one of the four women performing the ritual, ReEllis Dotson-Newman of Petaluma, as everyone said, “Ashé.”

“Please call out your ancestors who have paved the way for all of us,” Dotson-Newman asked audience members, who also called names.

Austin emphasized the ongoing struggle for equality and justice, highlighting current efforts to suppress the black vote in some U.S. states, including laws that have sought to ban early voting on Sunday.

“The message is we have to stay vigilant,” Austin said.

One of the highlights of the event, at least for dozens of young boys attending, was the traditional basketball tournament.

The tournament was organized by Ball Out Academy, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that’s seeking to expand in Sonoma County.

The basketball tournament was a key feature of the first Martin Luther King Jr./Juneteenth festivals at MLK Jr. Memorial Park.

Kenneth Duncan, the CEO of Ball Out Academy, was born and raised in Santa Rosa and grew up playing at the Juneteenth tournaments. Duncan said the goal of Ball Out Academy, which he founded in 2020, is mentoring through sport.

“We use it as a motivational tool,” he said.

Inspiration was a big theme of the event.

For Crystal Patterson, a Sacramento-based author, inspiration is a strong storytelling tool. Patterson, a former tech consultant with a degree in industrial engineering from UC Berkeley, had a booth at the event promoting her children’s book series “Inspired to Be.”

Patterson said she was partially motivated to become an author after she struggled with questions from her son about the death of George Floyd in 2020.

She said she aims to promote positive narratives of Black people through real stories of achievement. The books tell tangible fictional stories inspired by such people as gymnast Gabby Douglas or fashion designer Kheris Rogers.

The event drew a number of local officials, including Sonoma County Supervisors James Gore and Chris Coursey.

Coursey spoke of the importance of keeping history alive as a guiding tool.

“Our history is our strength but our history is not our future,” Coursey said. “We go into the future, looking for positive change, starting now and continuing every day.”

Santa Rosa Police Chief John Cregan, who also participated in the morning parade, said the event is a learning experience.

“It’s very educational to talk with some of the strong voices in our African American community and hear about how far we’ve come since 1863, but still how many things we still have to work on here in our community, even right here in Santa Rosa,” Cregan said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.