It was 1994 when a handful of organizers created the Delaware Juneteenth Association ― not just to celebrate Black history, but also armed with a mission statement to develop programming to address problems in the community.

Thirty years later, the organization is continuing to grow and hosted its largest annual event on Saturday: the Juneteenth freedom parade and festival, which drew about 3,000 people to Wilmington’s downtown and the Riverfront.

“We started with a flicker, and now we’re the keeper of the flame,” said Sylvia Lewis-Harris, one of six co-founders, led by main founder Bernie Wilkins, as she looked out at the crowd from under a tent.

Parade doubles in size

Saturday’s parade had 60 units marching down King Street from Rodney Square to the Riverfront, doubling last year’s effort celebrating the holiday, which is Wednesday. The parade ended at Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park with a six-hour festival celebration with children’s rides and music by R&B singer Christopher Williams (“I’m Dreamin'”) and The Odyssey Band.

Lines stretched down the sidewalk for the most popular food vendors, lured by the smells of whiting and catfish sandwiches from Vern’s Fish Fry and cajun crab macaroni and cheese and fried shrimp from Krys’ Soul Kreations.

The 2.4-acre Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park is named after Underground Railroad figures and abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Wilmington’s Thomas Garrett, who is believed to have helped almost 3,000 enslaved people to freedom.

Members of the Tri-City Reapers cheerleaders perform during the Delaware Juneteenth Association parade along King Street in Wilmington preceding the Juneteenth Festival Saturday, June 15, 2024.

“Having it here really makes it poignant,” Lewis-Harris said of the park, which began hosting the Juneteenth festival several years ago after it moved from Christina Park a few blocks away.

Juneteenth now a state of Delaware holiday

Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day or Liberation Day, is celebrated June 19 commemorating the day in 1865 when the Emancipation Proclamation was read in Galveston, Texas, announcing all slaves in the state were free.

It came more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the proclamation, which had formally freed the slaves in rebellious states. Many slave owners didn’t comply and enforcement was slow to reach Texas.

Vintage cars with the Soul Riders Auto Club ease down the roadway during the Delaware Juneteenth Association parade along King Street in Wilmington preceding the Juneteenth Festival Saturday, June 15, 2024.

In 2020, the murder of George Floyd, who was Black, at the hands of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, spawned widespread protest nationwide and in Delaware.

Less than a month after Floyd’s murder, Gov. John Carney announced all state offices would close in observance of Juneteenth. In 2022, it became a permanent state holiday.

A history lesson in freedom

It was the first time at the event for Charles Hayward, a longtime retired state of Delaware employee.

Marchers with Black Voters Matter take part during the Delaware Juneteenth Association parade along King Street in Wilmington preceding the Juneteenth Festival Saturday, June 15, 2024.

Hayward, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest intercollegiate historically African American fraternity, attended with his wife, Saundra, who was celebrating her birthday on a park bench with a cup of ice cream.

“I was raised here and wanted to come down and show support, knowing the background of the park. There’s a lot of history here,” said Hayward, now living in Brandywine Hundred.

First-year association president Styna Marisa LeCompte says Juneteenth and the celebrations around it are especially important for the younger generation.

The Delaware Juneteenth Association parade moves along King Street in Wilmington preceding the Juneteenth Festival Saturday, June 15, 2024.

“Nowadays with our youth, they sometimes aren’t taught history, never mind Black history,” she said. “They need to know whose shoulders they are standing on.”

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Juneteenth observance and Delaware Juneteenth Pageant still to come

Chelsea Stanley, Miss Delaware of Miss for America Strong waves during the Delaware Juneteenth Association parade along King Street in Wilmington preceding the Juneteenth Festival Saturday, June 15, 2024.

In addition to the weekend parade and festival, the association will host a Juneteenth observance service at Cornerstone Fellowship Baptist Church (20 W. Lea Blvd., Wilmington) on Wednesday at noon.

The Rev. Dr. Jesse Wendell Mapson Jr., senior pastor of the Monumental Baptist Church in Philadelphia, will be the guest preacher with music by the Rev. Justin Powell and an appearance by Miss Juneteenth Delaware Erin Hubbard Witcher.

This year’s Juneteenth events will end June 29 at 5 p.m. with the 27th annual Delaware Juneteenth Pageant at The Baby Grand (818 N. Market St., Wilmington). Tickets are $15 for adults and $7.50 for ages 12 and younger at thegrandwilmington.com.

Have a story idea? Contact Ryan Cormier of Delaware Online/The News Journal at rcormier@delawareonline.com or (302) 324-2863. Follow him on Facebook (@ryancormier) and X (@ryancormier).