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Bowling Green Activism Efforts Grow With Juneteenth Block Party

Becca Schimmel

A Bowling Green group that has been organizing local protests recently gathred hundreds for a different kind of event over the weekend.

The Bowling Green Freedom Walkers is expanding its reach with a Juneteenth celebration in a historic part of town.

Juneteenth marks the symbolic moment on June 19th, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and informed enslaved individuals of their freedom. 

The Shake Rag District is a historically Black part of Bowling Green, and the namesake for Chris Page's Shake Rag Barbershop. He said it's a meaningful location to host Friday night's celebration.

"After the Civil War, the one thing African Americans wanted more than anything was land. When we own our own land, we control our own destiny. So, there's not a better place to have a Juneteenth celebration than in a Black neighborhood," Page said.

This year, Juneteenth arrived at a time when many of the country's cities and towns have been protesting against racism, inequality, and police violence.

The Bowling Green Freedom Walkers is one of the groups that popped up in town to rally people after the police-related deaths of Minneapolis resident George Floyd in late May.

Member Nacarius Fant said the group is now working to incorporate as a non-profit.

"We're going to keep going forward here. It's not just going to be stuff like this, it's going to be giveaways to the homeless, it's going to be 8th of August. Different celebrations for different stuff, but it's going to be our group that's putting them on," Fant said.

Credit: Chris Rippy

The Freedom Walkers had been planning to release a list of demands dealing with police reform to city officials last week. Fant said the group has now decided to see what the public has to say with a questionnaire that was being distributed around the crowd.

Fant said the group is going to "post that [survey] tonight on Facebook for people to go and give a survey on stuff they've experienced, or what they've been through, or how they think the police department's doing in the city of Bowling Green," Fant said.

Friday night wasn't the first time a Juneteenth block party has taken place in Bowling Green. Though, residents like Alison Ray, who brought her daughter along, said this is one of the bigger events they've seen.

"We've had them in Bowling Green before and I've always been active and come out. But, this is really amazing and different," Ray said.

Both Ray and her friend, Deborah Bruton Barnett, who sat next to her in a folding chair in the shade, said this recent wave of activism has been a way for them to bond with their children.

Bruton Barnett has been bringing her teenage son to the recent marches.

"It was so refreshing just to see that he has all the same type of passions that I do, and even greater. He was at one of the marches and didn't want to leave," Bruton Barnett said.

One reason demonstrators said they feel this time is different is because of the widespread support they've received from white Americans, and from individuals abroad. 

Prince Osei came to Bowling Green just months ago from Ghana to be with his wife.

"Whether you are African American or Jamaican, as long as Black, Black [is] in you, you need to rise up because [this is] all affecting Black," Osei said, "I remember that my president in Ghana even have to say something in this, that we are all behind this, and we have to fight for Black freedom," Osei said.

Though Friday's block party saw the usual city leaders that have become mainstays at the recent events, across town, a separate group of demonstrators gathered for another reason.

Citing concerns over outside groups coming in, Bowling Green Mayor Bruce Wilkerson explained in a Facebook statement that the city would not be raising the American flag.

That led protestors like John Widelski to stand outside city hall, where he said someone had raised a personal flag on the pole.

"It doesn't matter what it is, everybody's got something to say. But no official direct threats were made against anybody, and that's a good thing," Widelski said.

Back in Shake Rag, people seemed to hear little context for why the city lowered it's flags and unaware of any alleged threats.

Bowling Green City Commissioner Dana Beasley-Brown said law enforcement told her it was the mayor and city manager's decision.

"I do not believe we should have taken the American flag down today. A day that's to celebrate freedom, Juneteenth. It is absolutely unacceptable and I am outraged," Beasley-Brown said.

Whether related to Juneteenth, or another threat that never materialized, the block party for the day known as "Black Independence Day" went on peacefully into the night.

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