ITHACA, N.Y.—Music and the aroma of summer grilling wafted through Ithaca’s Southside neighborhood this past weekend as community members gathered and danced to celebrate Juneteenth. One of the biggest public gatherings since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the iconic celebration was the first of many events Southside has planned to bring its members back together this summer. 

On Saturday, June 19, South Plain Street was barricaded off for the celebration filled with food, music, dance, literature and more, celebrating Black history and culture as Saturday marked the 154th anniversary of emancipation of slaves in Texas, the last state that still had institutional slavery in the United States. The event was advertised across social media as being an ’80s and ’90s themed dance party.

The celebration came days after the federal government declared Juneteenth a federal holiday. While the festivities brought the community together, several people at the event emphasized the importance of this day and its history.

“We live in a predominately white space. An event like Juneteenth acknowledges not only our existence and the space we take up but our triumphs and our beauties as African Americans,” said Jasmine Jay, volunteer at Southside Community Center.  “It feels like an especially emotional day after such an emotional year of change, and so many people who look like me have been disproportionately affected by COVID, both economically and physically.” 

Members of the community joined together in celebration with different performances and speakers throughout the day. One of those performances was from the young dancers with Ms. Harmony’s Dance Studio headed by Harmony Malone, the founder of UNITED Dance Troupe, which is currently being run out of the Southside Community Center.  

“It’s the celebration of us individually as Black and brown people being successful in their own right, but also us collectively as a family as a whole,” Malone said. “We recognize our beauties, our talents, to be seen, to be heard, to be noticed, to be valued. Today is a day to be even more expressive, even more loud.” 

The street was set up with tables for people to gather, eat and play games and grills were going all day to fill $10 plates with chicken, burgers and various sides. Tents were also set up offering goodies like face painting and fresh veggies from local gardens.

1 / 9

One tent Saturday was giving out free copies of The ABC’s of Black History by Rio Cortez—a book being distributed through the Children’s Reading Connection as part of its “Stories in the Streets” initiative. 

Dr. Nia Nunn, board president for the Southside Community Center and associate professor at Ithaca College, stressed the importance of the content within the book and was enthused to express her love for Southside as a whole. 

“One of the main features of today is really honoring this book, The ABC’s of Black History, and also creating our own acknowledgment of Ithaca’s Black history,” Nunn said. “This is a book I wish I had as a child. It’s a love letter to Black children.” 

The pages of the book were blown up to poster size and hung along the fence of the playground at Southside, serving as a backdrop for the rich Black history Southside commemorated throughout the day.

“These are the stories in the streets,” Nunn said. “You can come here and read them at any time.”

The celebration at Southside continued into the evening with a variety of food and a goal: to create the Guinness World Record for the longest Soul Train dance line, reminiscent of the popular television show hosted by Don Cornelius. Just after 6 p.m. community members filled Plain Street with those looking to be a part of history—though they eventually came up short of breaking the record. 

Executive Director Chavon Bunch said she was grateful to be able to hold such an event. 

“This is Southside’s big comeback,” Bunch said. “[This event means] freedom and family and fun, and I know that our ancestors would be proud that we have the street blocked and we are able to dance without chains and shackles and we are just able to be our free selves.” 

Ithaca Voice interns Mikayla Rovenolt and Desiree Holz wrote this report.