OAKLAND, Calif. - Mosswood Recreation Center rang with poetry, song and tributes June 22 as community members and friends gathered to celebrate the Juneteenth holiday and to honor more than a dozen people from the neighborhood whose everyday activities make all the difference to the community and especially to its young people.
Juneteenth, rapidly becoming a festive day across the U.S., commemorates June 19, 1865 - the day when black former slaves in Galveston, Texas, finally learned they were free, nearly two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Historic and ongoing struggles for full emancipation are celebrated as participants look ahead to what's needed to win full equality for black people, and all people, in our country.
Among those honored here this year were a single mother of three who held two jobs while earning a bachelor's degree from the California State University system, a small businessman whose East Oakland hobby shop employs area young people, a recreation center tennis coach whose program has launched winners of national titles, and a high school dropout who now holds a master's degree in sociology and specializes in programs addressing the needs of young African American men.
Honoree Tajuana Gray, who just earned her juris doctorate from the University of California's Hastings College of the Law, told the crowd, "On this day, I stand on the shoulders of people who led the way, who made me believe I could be of help to my community."
"I'm from Oakland, I grew up in the inner city," she said. "I still live in Oakland; I want people to know they can achieve and do positive things."
The program was also a moving tribute to longtime area resident Cassandra Lopez, a former Oakland public school teacher and mentor to literally hundreds of students and young people in the community.
Gray credited Lopez with being "a large part of why I went to law school. In middle school, Mrs. Lopez taught me the power to stand up for your community, to fight for justice when other people don't even think you will do it."
When Gray's mother was on welfare, she said, Lopez "took me and my sister in, and fed us, gave us a place to stay, and she did everything she could to let us know we could be what we wanted to be. She's the whole package."
"Now," she said, "I hope I can be a leader of Oakland, continue to be a representative for my community, teach the youth and also help my people."
The program also recognized the area's unsung heroes, among them longtime Mosswood tennis coach Terry Stewart, who told the crowd he has gotten national awards for his program, "but this is the first time I've ever been acknowledged here in this area."
Stewart also thanked Lopez for her role in the community: "I really want to thank Cassie for all she does. Even when things were difficult, Cassie always helped me keep motivated. That's what we really need to do for all the kids in our community. That's what the community is all about."
Lopez told the audience, "These are crucial times. So much is demanded of the working and non-working mothers and fathers, the youth, the elderly. So much is being taken from us. We have to stand together, because together we can change the tide that is sweeping our nation.
Also presenting were young poet Symone Bradley; teacher, poet and honoree father Toussaint Stewart; and the Ware-Carter Family singers - three young women whose rendition of R&B singer R. Kelly's song, "I believe I can fly!" drew cheers from the audience.
The celebration was sponsored by the Mosswood Recreation Center Community Advisory Council, Mamas for Obama Continued, and the People's World Northern California Bureau.
Photo: The Ware-Carter Family Singers - from left, Kamea Ware, Kawaii Ware, and Naomi Carter - perform at the Juneteenth celebration, July 22, Oakland, Calif. Marilyn Bechtel/PW