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Denver Residents Celebrate Recognition Of Juneteenth As A Federal Holiday

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Denver has been celebrating Juneteenth for nearly 70 years. Local organizers see their festival as a kind of blueprint for other U.S. cities now that Juneteenth is a federal holiday.

Claire Cleveland reports from Denver.

CLAIRE CLEVELAND, BYLINE: At his home in Aurora, just east of Denver, Norman Harris III is packing a U-Haul for the Juneteenth Music Festival, the longest-running parade in Colorado.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK DOOR ROLLING UP)

NORMAN HARRIS III: All types of stuff from iPads to five-gallon water containers to T-shirts. I mean, I've probably got a hundred little things that get packed into a U-Haul to make a beautiful celebration.

CLEVELAND: Almost a decade ago, Harris took over organizing the festival. While Juneteenth has been celebrated in Denver since the '50s, by 2012, it needed fresh leadership. Harris remembers that first year he organized it.

HARRIS: It was a crash course in Denver politics for me. There were quite a few things to navigate for us to understand where and why the celebration was where it was.

CLEVELAND: This year, the festival is bigger than ever. Last night, there was a concert. And today, the annual parade and blocks full of vendors will bring nearly 30,000 people into Five Points, Denver's historically Black neighborhood.

HARRIS: Where we are going to go is to set a model for how Juneteenth can and should be celebrated locally, regionally, nationally and globally. We are providing that platform for our entire country to say, we need to address our systemic challenges to forge better outcomes for our entire community.

CLEVELAND: Across town, artists, musicians and vendors are preparing for the festival. The weekend kicked off with a broadcast on TV and Facebook Live on Friday, featuring entertainment acts and panel discussions about how Juneteenth should now be honored. Duniya Shawty is one of the musical performers. She's a jazz vocalist. She and bass player Zoe Moff were practicing their songs in the studio. Shawty says she's honored to be part of the celebrations this year.

DUNIYA SHAWTY: I feel like it was also a moment for us to regroup so that we can regather and then have days like today where we can say, like, I'm taking off for work for Juneteenth 'cause it's a federally recognized holiday, you know, so...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAWTY: (Singing) Little red top.

CLEVELAND: For Harris, the news made this year's Juneteenth all the more important and exciting.

HARRIS: When I heard that this was actual reality, it was - like, my breath - took my breath away - extremely, extremely, extremely happy.

CLEVELAND: But he says there's still work to be done. He credits the protests last summer with helping to push for change and grow momentum.

HARRIS: So what's next? What are our next steps? The first is the awareness. What actions happen because of that awareness is up to us.

CLEVELAND: I'm Claire Cleveland for NPR News in Denver.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we mistakenly say the Juneteenth Music Festival is the longest-running parade in Colorado. In fact, it is the longest running parade in Denver.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.