Overland Park Juneteenth celebration emphasizes message, ‘We are free’

Overland Park Juneteenth

The city of Overland Park officially recognized June 19 as "Freedom Day," following the signing of a new federal law making Juneteenth the newest federal holiday. At a Juneteenth rally Saturday, Karen Armstead, on stage at left, performed an interpretive dance with participants holdings signs evoking the names of George Floyd and Black Wall Street, an area of Tulsa, Okla., destroyed in a racist massacre in 1921. Photo credit Kyle Palmer.

More than 100 people gathered on a sweltering Saturday afternoon at Thompson Park in downtown Overland Park to celebrate Juneteenth — marking the city’s first official commemoration of the nation’s newest federal holiday.

Saturday’s event included poetry readings, musical performances, an interpretive dance, a voter registration drive and free COVID-19 vaccinations and testing.

City leaders also read an official proclamation from Mayor Carl Gerlach, marking June 19 as “Freedom Day” in Overland Park, following a new law passed by Congress and signed by President Biden last week making Juneteenth the nation’s newest federal holiday.

“It was sheer frustration bordering on rage that brought us together last year,” Stacey Knoell, executive director of the newly created Kansas African American Affairs Commission, told the crowd Saturday. “It’s history that brings us together today.”

Gladys Tharp-McKenzie holds her granddaughter Genesis, 4, on her lap as they watch performers during Saturday’s Juneteenth celebration. Gladys raised her daughter Linnaia in Johnson County, and Linnaia helped organize Saturday’s event. “I feel a difference over the last year,” Gladys said. “I feel a lot better. I feel the love from others more. People are waking up to the injustice that has been going on.” Photo credit Kyle Palmer.

Last June, hundreds of activists and residents marched through Overland Park in an event organized amid a summer of national protest and unrest following the killing of George Floyd.

Like that event, this year’s Juneteenth celebration included calls for more police accountability and pleas for residents to educate themselves about America’s history of slavey and oppression of peoples of color.

Knoell told the crowd about recent historical research that sheds light on the potential origin of the name of Negro Creek, which runs through parts of Overland Park and Leawood. The city of Overland Park has begun the process to rename it.

And Prairie Village Police Chief Byron Roberson, believed to be the first Black police chief in Johnson County history, also spoke, saying he’d seen a movement within his own department in recent years for “more collaboration and self-imposed accountability towards the community.”

“Policing has made progress, but we all know there is much more work to be done,” he said.

Students in the KCK All-Star Band perform Saturday at Thompson Park as part of a Juneteenth celebration in Overland Park. Leaders of the band said the group formed earlier this summer and that this was their first public performance. Photo credit Kyle Palmer.

Still, organizers said this year’s event felt more cathartic and celebratory, due in large part to Juneteenth’s newly minted status as an official federal holiday.

“It was perfect timing this year,” said Linnaia McKenzie with the Advocacy and Awareness Group of Johnson County, who helped organize this year’s Juneteenth celebration. “We wanted to ask the community to make a recommitment to this work, trying to push them again to acknowledge our nation’s troubled past while looking with hope towards the future.”

Here are some more images from Saturday’s Juneteenth rally in Overland Park:

A few dozen people marched from Overland Park City Hall to Thompson Park, carrying signs with messages like, “Liberty and Justice For All” and “Silence Is Violence.” It was the second year in a row marchers took to the streets of Overland Park on Juneteenth. Last year, hundreds rallied in a summer of protest and unrest following the murder of George Floyd. Photo credit Kyle Palmer.


Janee Robinson holds her son Jayden, 5, as they watch Robinson’s daughter perform as part of the KCK All-Star Band. Robinson now lives in Kansas City, Kan., but is originally from Texas, where Juneteenth originated. The holiday marks the date in 1865 Union troops told enslaved peoples in Galveston, Tex., that the Civil War was over and that they were free. Robinson said Juneteenth means a lot to her. “It’s our day of freedom,” she said. “And today is the first day that it is recognized as a national holiday. I’ve been celebrating this day since I could remember.” Photo credit Kyle Palmer.


Singer Troy Weekes Music performs a rendition of the Sam Cooke classic, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” The song has been used for decades as an anthem for civil rights in the U.S. Speakers on Saturday alluded to the long struggle for equality in America. “I think not everyone understands that we are free,” Stacey Knoell told the crowd. “It’s almost as if the news of our freedom has still not quite reached everyone yet.” Photo credit Kyle Palmer.


A proclamation issued by Overland Park Mayor Carl Gerlach earlier this month officially recognizes June 19 as “Freedom Day.” The proclamation was approved before Juneteenth was made an official federal holiday. On Saturday, Overland Park city councilmember Paul Lyons, right, read the proclamation and presented it to the event’s organizers, including Linnaia McKenzie, left, and Nicole Buckner. Photo credit Kyle Palmer.


Temperatures Saturday hovered in the upper 90s. Still, a few marchers struck out from Overland Park City Hall at around 10:30 and made their way to Thompson Park, where the main proceedings occurred. Above, WaterOne board member Kay Heley carries a sign during the march. Photo credit Kyle Palmer.


A member of the poetry duo The Recipe recites a poem to the crowd from the Thompson Park stage. Photo credit Kyle Palmer.



Kavontay Fletcher, left, and Jekyia Hall perform with other members of the KCK All-Star Band Saturday. Kavontay is a rising junior at Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kan., and Jekiya is a recent high school graduate. Photo credit Kyle Palmer.


Organizers of Saturday’s event say with Juneteenth now an official federal holiday, they hope recognition of the day in Overland Park will become an annual celebration. Photo credit Kyle Palmer.