Column: Juneteenth in San Diego is a time for celebration, education

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“How come I’ve never been taught about Claudette Colvin in school?”

That question arises often, says local teacher Dawn Miller, who has helped erect a 40-foot-long Black history wall of photos and facts at the annual Juneteenth festival on Imperial Avenue in San Diego.

In order to enter the festival’s “fun zone” young people are asked to share one thing they learned from the educational wall, which spotlights Africa, slavery, the Jim Crow era, civil rights and today’s Black Lives Matter, George Floyd and police brutality.

For those who don’t know, Colvin was a 15-year-old Black girl in Montgomery, Ala. who refused to give up her seat to a White woman on a crowded, segregated bus in 1955. She was arrested nine months before Rosa Parks made a similar protest.

Juneteenth is June 19. It was on that day in 1865 — more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect — that Union soldiers rode into Galveston, Texas, still under Confederate control, and announced that slavery had been abolished.

The T-shirt of this Juneteenth celebration attendee tells the story behind the historic June 19, 1865 date.

The T-shirt of this Juneteenth celebration attendee tells the story behind the historic June 19, 1865 date.

(Photo courtesy of the Cooper Family Foundation)

At 5 a.m. this June 19, Marla Cooper, her daughter, Monique Bonniey, and an army of family and friends will converge on Memorial Park with banners, vendor tables, Juneteenth flags of red, black and green, and other items to prepare for the annual Juneteenth celebration that Marla Cooper’s dad started more than 50 years ago.

“July 4th is not our holiday,” stresses Cooper. “I’m 60, and from as young as I can remember we always celebrated Juneteenth, because my father said we needed to celebrate our culture and our heritage.”

At that time they gathered in Southcrest Park.

“No one knew about Juneteenth and didn’t know why my father wanted to celebrate the end of slavery,” she recalls. “Media didn’t come out, and that didn’t matter. It was the date that change began for African Americans. You have to know who you are and where you came from and your cultural struggles. This is what we celebrate.”

She calls her late father, Sydney Cooper Sr., a passionate man and “a proud Black man.” For years he operated the Twilight Barber Shop and Cooper & Sons’ Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Produce Store at 2973 Imperial Ave. His wife, Thelma, ran the Powder Puff Beauty Salon in the same building, which the couple later purchased.

Having grown up with 16 siblings, Sidney Cooper knew the gnawing pain of hunger. On his way to school, he raided trash cans to scavenge for food, relates Marla Cooper. Because of his experience, he always insisted that free food be provided for kids and families attending his Juneteenth street festival.

The community celebration began as a small gathering at his barbershop and eventually grew into a large street fair on Imperial Avenue in front of his shop.

Sydney Cooper’s love for the community, his commitment to giving back and his support of Black-owned businesses earned him the nickname “mayor of Imperial Avenue.”

On the Juneteenth following his death in 2001, Thelma Cooper brought food to the barbershop in his memory. After that, family members decided to carry on his Juneteenth tradition as a tribute to him.

Initially they collaborated with Family Health Centers of San Diego, then they did it by themselves. “We all put in money once a year and, when it took on a life of its own, we decided to create a nonprofit,” says Marla Cooper.

Hence, the Cooper Family Foundation was formed, a grant writer was hired and a committee of community members was formed to meet monthly and offer guidance.

The family fund raises year round for this one-day celebration. Marla Cooper explains that it’s not the most high-profile, donor-attracting event, so money comes in over time in small amounts. “We do a whole lot with a little. If we fall short, we all pitch in and make up the shortfall ourselves,” she adds.

The festival cost grew to between $50,000 and $70,000, and attendance topped 4,000 in 2019, Marla Cooper says.

Then the pandemic hit. The community observed Juneteenth in 2020, but with a virtual ceremony streamed online from Monique Cooper’s yard in Spring Valley.

This month it will take place with numerous changes related to the pandemic. It still will be called the “Healing the Community Street Fair,” but instead of the street, it will take place in the more spacious Memorial Park, at 2975 Ocean View Blvd. Face masks are required, and vaccine cards are requested. “We want to celebrate but be safe,” explains Marla Cooper.

A mobile hospital van and members of the San Diego Black Nurses Association will offer COVID-19 vaccines or, for those who prefer, future vaccination appointments. Lunch is still free but will be individually wrapped and packaged.

As it opens, Thelma Cooper, who turned age 91 this week, and other neighborhood elders will answer questions. This will be followed by educational, inspirational and spiritual segments, comments from public officials at noon, voter registration booths, legal aid advisers, and community health and mental health workers.

There also will be fun and games, dancing and music, and local vendors offering African jewelry, clothing and other items.

The Cooper event is the longest running local Juneteenth celebration, but there are others, usually promoted by word of mouth and on social media.

Artists 4 Black Lives SD is holding its second observance at the Pepper Grove in Balboa Park beginning at 1 p.m., June 19.

A free family-friendly gathering, with music and merchandise booths, also is planned from noon to 7 p.m. at Ski Beach on Mission Bay. “There will be DJs and good vibes all day into the evening,” says Tafarae Phillips, 31.

“Of course, basically, we’ll be celebrating the emancipation of slaves in 1865,” notes the father of two who moved here from Georgia. He attended the inaugural Ski Beach observance on June 19, 2020.

When asked what Sydney Cooper Sr. would say if he could be here Saturday, Marla Cooper responds: “My father would be overwhelmed with joy.

“My prayer is that we come away collectively as a culture feeling better, encouraged and re-energized about moving forward, supporting Black businesses and recycling our dollars. We are African-Americans, and we’re proud to be African-Americans,” she says.



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