Black Independence Day’: Asheville celebrates Juneteenth and Black culture

Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven

On June 19, Kiya wears a yellow tutu, polka dot shorts and a faux yellow flower clipped into her ponytail. The 8-year-old shuffles back and forth from the front of her lemonade stand to the back. 

Behind the counter, she picks up a clear plastic cup, scoops ice into it, and walks around to the front. She puts the cold cup under a big jug of her sticky, sweet, secret recipe, plucks the spout down to fill the cup, and then hands it off to one of her many customers standing patiently in line.  

“I started this business at 4 or 5 years old,” she says. Her mom, Nikita Lindsey, clarifies – she was 5.  

Nikiya Lindsey manned her lemonade stand; Kiya's Lemonade Stand, during Asheville's Juneteenth celebration at MLK Park on June 19, 2021.  Nikiya, 8, has operated her stand since age 5 and was set up with her mother for Saturday's celebration.

Kiya sets up her booth at many different events, including the Juneteenth celebration at Martin Luther King Jr. Park in downtown Asheville.  

“(Juneteenth) was when the slaves were freed, and everybody dressed up in fancy clothes because the slaves couldn’t wear fancy clothes,” Kiya said. The fancy clothes part partially explains the tutu – she also just wanted to wear it.  

Kiya, along with dozens of other vendors and residents, crowded into the park on an overcast day thick with humidity to celebrate the holiday that commemorates the day a group of enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, learned they were free – three years after Abraham Lincoln signed the emancipation proclamation, and two years after the law went into effect.  

For many, Juneteenth is the real Independence Day for Black people.  

Keith Knox, who was at the event with the Buncombe County Democratic Party, said, “I don’t celebrate the Fourth of July at all.” 

“My family was still shackled in chains, plowing the fields, so, (fourth of July) is just another day for me,” he said. 

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Knox, who has degrees in political science and Africana studies, said: “I have been in a very strong Black family that has taught me my history. Once you figure your history out, about what the Fourth of July stands for, you know that I’m not that person that should have been celebrating the Fourth of July, but celebrating Juneteenth.”  

Fourth of July commemorates the day in 1776 when the 13 colonies were officially free from British rule. Many people in the U.S. celebrate it as Independence Day. But Black people remained enslaved for nearly 100 more years after July 4, 1776, until 1865.  

“We’re celebrating ‘freedom’ in America when people weren’t already free,” said Marcus Cunningham, who came to the Juneteenth event representing Urban Combat Wrestling.  

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” he said, “We recognize a lot of these other holidays that kind of in a way celebrate murder and pillaging.”  

“It’s super important, symbolic, and necessary that they decided to make (Juneteenth) a holiday,” Cunningham said. “It’s not too late but it’s like, what were you waiting for?”  

Cunningham and Knox, who are friends, agree that making Juneteenth a federal holiday was important, and they also want to ensure white people don’t dilute its meaning.  

“I don’t want it to become like a Cinco de Mayo type of situation,” Cunningham said, referring to how people in the U.S. treat Cinco de Mayo as a day to get drunk on tequila and wear a sombrero, when the holiday really is a celebration of the day a group of Mexican soldiers ousted the better-armed French army from the city of Puebla.  

“I want it to be something that people actually understand,” Cunningham said. 

In addition to vendors selling food, drinks and clothing, medical professionals sat under a tent to vaccinate people against the coronavirus. Across the field, multiple women sat behind a table handing out sheets about colorectal cancer signs and how to get screened for the disease.  

“It’s known that Black people, African Americans, are the ones most likely to get colon cancer,” said Kim Jones, who sat at the booth. “So we’re out here trying to educate people.”  

As Jones spoke, a printed picture of the actor Chadwick Boseman flapped in the breeze. Boseman died in August 2020 at age 43 from colon cancer.  

Black people are 45% more likely than other groups to die of colon cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends people without a family history of the cancer begin getting screened when they turn 45, and those with a family history begin at 40.   

Representatives from church groups and other community groups also set up shop at the festival. Cindy McMillan is a doula with Sistas Caring 4 Sistas. Doulas are birth advocates who support people throughout their pregnancy, birth and post-partum period.

“We just want our community to know that we’re here, that we’re here to support them through maternal health,” McMillan said, “We advocate for our women and try to encourage these systems to make some changes around Black maternal health.” 

McMillian has been a doula for five years. Her own experience giving birth and feeling mistreated by the medical establishment led her to become the advocate she wished she’d had for herself. The group is based within the Mountain Area Health Education Center’s Ob/Gyn department. 

As McMillian spoke, a woman walked up to her booth. “She was my doula,” she told the Citizen Times. “I love you!” she shouted.  

McMillian laughed, “I love you too!”