More than 4,000 people gathered at Caswell Park in Knoxville Friday evening to celebrate Juneteenth — the holiday celebrating the end of slavery on the date the Emancipation Proclamation was enforced in Galveston, Texas in 1865, two years after it was passed.
Many Black-owned restaurants gave out free food, more than a dozen speakers took to the stage and booths around the park distributed resources and information. 24-year-old Izzy McDermott said he was born and raised in Knoxville, and had never seen a Juneteenth event like this one.
“This is the first June 19th that I've celebrated on a scale like this, but this makes you want to celebrate because there's so many people," McDermott said.
While advocating for Democratic candidates from a table on the park's perimeter, McDermott said he hopes to see change in Knoxville.
“This is my city, I love this place and I’m ready for a change,” McDermott said. “I don’t want to see another innocent Black person, or anybody, killed due to injustice with police. For now, I want to start with us reforming the police.”
Many of the speakers at the rally encouraged attendees to take their passion from recent protests to the polls. Dasha Lundy is running for a county commission seat and was one of the candidates to address the crowd.
“Remember your voice matters, remember to vote on August 6th. Don’t let this day pass by; the time is now and we must continue to fight for our communities," Lundy said.
As a chant proclaiming “Vote, vote, vote” rippled from the stage through the crowd earlier in the evening, Ann Strange, from the League of Women Voters, said she already had a box full of registration forms.
“We’ve got a lot of motivated people that want to vote this year, so it’s a very exciting event,” Strange added.
The evening focused on celebrating the city's Black community, and those who took to the stage spoke of their visions for a better Knoxville. One of the organizers and emcee for the evening, Constance Every, warned of gentrification coming to East Knoxville and emphasized the need to invest in Black-owned businesses.
Leading up to Juneteenth, organizers set up a fundraising campaign on GoFundMe to support the businesses providing food for the event. Get’Cha Po-Boy is a new Knoxville business that was giving out chicken and sausage jambalaya, but ran out as thousands of people poured into the park Friday. The founder, Lynnez Grey-Thompson, said she and her husband came to Knoxville from Louisiana three years ago.
“Juneteenth is very important to us and our history, so of course we had to come out here and support this movement, it’s very important it’s educational to everybody,” Grey-Thompson said.