Children, politicians, local businesses and community groups came together Saturday morning at Howell Place Park to eat, dance and play their way to a healthier lifestyle as part of the yearly celebration of Juneteenth.
The event was hosted by BREC and Community Against Drugs and Violence, a nonprofit group that fights crime and urban blight in the Banks community of north Baton Rouge.
Featuring free healthy snacks, outdoor games and an inflatable bouncy castle, the celebration was intended to show children in the community that leading a healthy lifestyle can be easy and enjoyable, said Pat McCallister-Leduff, president of Community Against Drugs and Violence.
“We want our kids to reach for the celery sticks, to say ‘I don’t want those french fries,’ ” McCallister-Leduff said.
Juneteenth began as a celebration of the end of slavery, marking the historic day of June 19, 1865, when Union general Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with news that slavery had been abolished.
Although President Abraham Lincoln gave the Emancipation Proclamation that officially freed the slaves in 1863, it wasn’t until two years later that slavery was abolished in every state and territory of the United States.
Over the years, Juneteenth has served as a celebration of freedom and remembrance and a rallying point for largely African-American communities.
State Rep. Regina Barrow, who represents the district that includes Howell Place, said it was important to use the occasion to educate and inspire younger generations.
“They need to not take for granted all the rights and privileges we have today,” Barrow said. “It’s important to pass the message on to the next generation. But there’s still a fight ahead of us.”
Barrow said impoverished African-American communities face a number of disadvantages, from the obesity and diet issues highlighted by Saturday’s events to higher education. Events like the Juneteenth celebration, she said, help build community-led solutions to some of these problems.
Saturday’s Juneteenth celebration is one of two that will be held this month. BREC will host its second Juneteenth event in partnership with Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, June 13, at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, 4200 Gus Young Ave.
McCallister-Leduff said two of the biggest problems facing the north Baton Rouge community are food scarcity and an unhealthy culture.
Baton Rouge as a whole, she said, has a problem with fast food, leading to more adults making unhealthy choices for their children and children thus growing up in unhealthy environments.
A study by Gallup-Healthways released last week found that, of the 100 largest metro areas in the United States, Baton Rouge has the highest obesity rate at 35.9 percent.
Scotlandville, where McCallister-Leduff’s organization is based, is classified as a food desert by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, meaning it is both low-income and prohibitively short on grocery stores.
McCallister-Leduff said this scarcity of grocery stores contributes to the difficulty of leading a healthy lifestyle in the neighborhood, but her organization has taken steps to combat it.
McCallister-Leduff said that when new convenience stores opened in the area, her group held community meetings with the stores’ owners, asking them to provide healthy options.
“First things groceries sell here are fried chicken, fried shrimp, french fries; you can see those in every store on every corner,” McCallister-Leduff said. “We told them, ‘I want to see at least some lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes right in the front entrance of the store.’ ”
McCallister-Leduff stressed that while the surrounding neighborhoods face serious problems, this year’s Juneteenth was all about fun.
“Today is about running around, just being outside,” McCallister-Leduff said.
Taking the lead in that department was the 6th Platoon Wolfpack, a group of boys aged 16 to 18 enrolled in the Louisiana National Guard Youth Challenge Program, a remedial program that helps troubled students get their GEDs. Members of the Wolfpack ran, jumped and played the games scattered around the park, showing younger children how to join in.
McCallister-Leduff said when she invited the Youth Challenge Program, she hoped the cadets’ enthusiasm would rub off on the younger children.
The Wolfpack’s commanding officer, Cpl. Dedric Collins, said the program teaches participants who might not have done well in school discipline and teamwork skills necessary to be successful in their futures.
“These are second-chance kids,” Collins said.