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Report for America is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.

Juneteenth Celebration Stronger Than Ever In Rockford

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
Juneteenth Celebration Outside of Ellis Elementary School

This month, people across northern Illinois came together in Rockford to celebrate Juneteenth. They also used the gathering as an opportunity to protest police brutality. Rockford Youth Activism organized the event.


But what exactly is Juneteenth? Here is a brief history as told by those who gathered at Ellis Elementary on June 19th, 2020.


Those are the voices of Aija Penix, Laura Bates, Carolyn Cadigan, Aaron McAllen, Harlan Johnson, Toni Thomas, and Minister James Davis.

Many Americans learned about Juneteenth this year after the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests decrying police brutality and chants of “Black Lives Matter.” But this isn’t the first year Rockford celebrated Juneteenth. Aija Penix says that she’s happy the Juneteenth celebration this year was so packed and included new faces.

“I remember when it was just in the parking lot of a grocery store, you know, like not that long ago, and this is going to be a much bigger thing, and I'm proud of that," said Penix.

Penix says she’s really come to embrace the day as she has gotten older.

“I usually do a little cookout with some people of mine and we just do it. Like we used to do it for the Fourth of July," she said. "We no longer do that for the Fourth of July instead, we do it for Juneteenth. And we acknowledge the Fourth of July as the day after Juneteenth”

Minister James Davis believes Juneteenth should finally be recognized as a national holiday.

“A lot of people gave up their lives for this day," said Davis. "A lot of death, a lot of sacrifices were made.

And, Davis says this year, things feel different. 

“This Juneteenth celebration is just an extension of something that's been going on and going on and going on. But I don't think it ever had the impact not in the city of Rockford that is happening now.”

Governor J.B. Pritzker officially proclaimed June 19, 2020 as Juneteenth in the state. All flags in Illinois were ordered at half-staff for the day in recognition of the last enslaved people in Galveston, Texas in 1865.

While Rockford’s Juneteenth observances grew significantly this year from backyard cookouts and parking lot gatherings to massive on-street demonstrations, the movement’s momentum could make the scenes of 2020 a common sight for years to come.

Rockford Juneteenth celebration feature

  • Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco is a 2020 corps member for Report for Americaan initiative of the GroundTruth Project which is a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms.
Juanpablo covers environmental, substandard housing and police-community relations. He’s been a bilingual facilitator at the StoryCorps office in Chicago. As a civic reporting fellow at City Bureau, a non-profit news organization that focuses on Chicago’s South Side, Ramirez-Franco produced print and audio stories about the Pilsen neighborhood. Before that, he was a production intern at the Third Coast International Audio Festival and the rural America editorial intern at In These Times magazine. Ramirez-Franco grew up in northern Illinois. He is a graduate of Knox College.