“Juneteenth” in Davenport and the Quad Cities

Today is Juneteenth. The increased interest in the experience of African Americans since the abolition of slavery, occasioned by the renewed call for racial justice in these times, means that many of this year’s celebrations are focused on educating the public about the nation’s past, including the history of the holiday itself.

While Iowa and Illinois would not make Juneteenth a state holiday until 2002 and 2003, respectively, Davenport and other communities throughout the country began holding festivities once Texas declared it in 1980. The first Juneteenth celebration in Davenport was held in 1989. The nonprofit United Neighbors, Inc. organized celebrations through the 1990s and first decades of the 2000s; the Friends of MLK took over in 2017.

Quad-City Times, June 16, 1989, p. 23

Although the 1989 celebration was the first to be called “Juneteenth,” Davenporters had commemorated the end of slavery in the United States since the end of the Civil War. On the evening of January 1st, 1866 an “Emancipation Festival” was held in LeClaire Hall. According to that morning’s Davenport Daily Gazette, an event like this, “conducted under the auspices of colored people” was “a novelty;” the editor had encouraged white citizens to “go to the Festival and show that you are in earnest about desiring the weal of all humanity…” In fact, the African American community had picniced in celebration at Mitchell’s Grove the August before:

Davenport Daily Gazette, August 1, 1865, p. 4.

While we must investigate our local newspapers further to be certain (with thanks to local historian Craig Klein for starting us on this project), it appears either or both January and August-September emancipation celebrations continued up through First World War. Attendees and participants often came from Moline, Rock Island, Muscatine, Clinton and elsewhere in the region. Speeches, singing, brass bands, and dinners were all typical of these celebrations. A report in the August 2, 1891 Davenport Democrat lovingly describes the barbecued meats that were served. That year ‘s event also featured a baseball game between two “colored” teams, the just-formed Davenport Blues and the Molines; there was dancing into the evening, both before and after supper.

More research should yield more details about how Juneteenth and its predecessor holidays were celebrated in Davenport and the Quad-Cities area. Stay tuned for updates, and please share with us any memories or memorabilia you might have!

(posted by Katie)

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