Junteenth Event Shares History, Honors Diversity in Madison Heights
(Crystal A. Proxmire, June 27, 2021)
Madison Heights, MI – “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won.”
The words to James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” resounded through Civic Center Park in Madison Heights for their recent Juneteenth celebration. They also summed up the mood, which was a mix of somber remembrance for the past and optimism for the future as the community came together against racism. The event speakers and musicians shared about the meaning of Juneteenth, which honors the end of slavery in Texas, which was one of the last state for abolition to occur. Juneteenth celebrations began in Texas, but have spread across the country, with Juneteenth being Federally recognized this year.
In Madison Heights the gathering was organized by local couple Kevin and Keleila Wright with the help of volunteers and the city. They’d previously organized a Black Lives Matter demonstration in 2020. The interracial couple has a blended family and simply wants all kids, including their own, to be treated fairly. “In any community there is a faction of people who are racist. In Madison Heights things are pretty good, but there’s always work to do. You can see all the people who came out for this,” Keleila said. “It feels good.”
Visitors enjoyed entertainment, speeches, food trucks, booths with community groups and items for sale, face painting, and even a mini petting zoo. “This gives people a chance to talk about the history,” she said. Adding that she hopes people who don’t know about the meaning of the day will “educate yourself and try to learn about the history. It is important.”
Madison Heights Mayor Roslyn Grafstein welcomed the crowds and thanked the organizers. “I was born and raised in Canada and until last year I don’t think I had ever heard of Juneteenth, the event we are here today to celebrate because of Keleila and Kevin Wright,” she said.
“Last year I reached out to others in the community about setting up some type of coalition aimed at addressing systemic racism and hate based on skin color, religion or culture. My thinking being that while Madison Heights has a mainly white population, we are diverse with our residents and our businesses and we need to show that we support and value the diversity of everyone who makes up our community. My feeling then and even more so now is that open communication and diversity or anti-hate education for everyone is needed if we are going to move forward. Thanks to the hard work and effort of our Human Relation and Equity Commission, their Cultural Events subcommittee and Madison Heights Citizens United who have been working on this almost since the day the city Commission was formed last Fall, we are able to be here today to celebrate.”
Based on the 2019 Census population estimates, There are about 29,886 residents with 80.8% being white, 8.5% being black, and 5.1% being Asian. Like most places, the city has experienced racial tension and issues. Yet they’ve also been firm in standing up to hate when it does arise. In 2019, graffiti with racial slurs and “KKK” brought the community together for a love rally, and in 2020 there was the previously mentioned BLM demonstration. At one point during the Juneteenth celebration, about a dozen people wearing Nazi symbols marched into the event and formed a line across the front of the stage, though no confrontations occurred.
Police Chief Corey Haines and his officers were on hand not only to keep peace, but to “show the community that we support them and to get to know the people we’re here to serve.”
The department is currently going through a Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police Accreditation process that helps solidify their use of best practices. Police in Ferndale recently completed the program. At the time, MACP Executive Director Robert Stevenson gave perspective on how unique and proactive such accreditation is. “To give you an idea of just how rarified your police department is, there are more than 600 law enforcement agencies in the State of Michigan, and yours is now one of just 29 that have voluntarily worked to become accredited,” Stevenson said. “Your department was able to do what 95% of the departments in the State have not done to this point,” he said. Madison Heights will soon be joining them when the accreditation process is complete.
“We’re constantly striving to do better and connect with everyone in the community,” Chief Haines said. He and officers have been attending the community’s Human Relation and Equity Commission meetings, and when the death of George Floyd at the hands of police made national news, Madison Heights Police were quick to remind the public that choke holds have been banned in the department for years.
Racism has also touched Madison Heights’ Asian Community. Members of Association of Chinese Americans had a booth at the event to show support for black neighbors and to be part of the ongoing discussions about racism. Vice President Sharon Dow said “Racism has been a problem since the outbreak of the pandemic. The use of the word “China Virus” made more hate and fear towards Chinese people. We’re seeing hate crimes in this county and we want to not be silent.”
Dow said she’s had people given her the finger for no reason, and that a friend of hers has been physically attacked twice by someone using racial slurs. “We’re appreciative of Madison Heights support and events like this,” she said. “Meeting the police and knowing they are here makes it easier for people to report hate crimes when they happen. We need these relationships. And we need to support people of all races because we face the same things.”
Not only did the event provide a space to acknowledge and discuss racism, it provided a venue to celebrate black success. Among the black-owned businesses at the booths were apparel designers with positive messages about the community. Deondrae Porter and Yentyl Crawford started Blaxellence in March “to empower black people no matter where you are,” Porter said.
Though now living in Auburn Hills, Porter grew up in Madison Heights and attended Lamphere High School. “I was one of only 5 black kids growing up. There’s more now,” he said. “But I grew up in a mixed crowd and I was cool with everybody.”
Starting his own company is something to be proud of, and he encourages others to go in business for themselves. “Keep going and don’t quit. Don’t get discouraged. Stay at it and look for opportunities and you will find your path.”
Heather Howell is another entrepreneur that was excited to connect with neighbors at the event. She’s the creator and proprietor of Naturally Stranded Hair Care Products. “I love beautiful, natural hair,” she said. “But when I read product labels on hair care items I saw a bunch of stuff I couldn’t pronounce. And with a lot of products there are chemicals and alcohol which actually dries out hair.
“I started making my own, just at home in my kitchen. And that’s how we still do it. Each batch is hand made – with love – and what you see is what you get.”
She started her experiments three years ago and about a year ago came up with the perfect formula. “It took two years to get it right, but you gotta stay committed, and you have to live what you love.”
Seeing a variety of black businesses, and participating in activities helped visitors appreciate the diversity in the community, and gave young guests of all races successful people to look up to.
“After this event we’ll have a family talk,” said Olvbunmi Parks who lives in Madison Heights with husband Brian and kids Brian and Benjamin. “I love history, because when we’re informed it helps us to be good citizens, and helps shapes character at a young age, to be fair to everyone and treat each other right. We learn from the past so we don’t go backwards.”
Those who want to learn more about equity and inclusion efforts in Madison Heights can check out the Human Relations Equity Commission website.