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Attendees reflect on Juneteenth during jubilee at Austin’s Willie Mae Kirk Library

Sean Saldana
Texas Standard

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” – General Orders, No. 3

Last Thursday morning, in the meeting room of the Willie Mae Kirk Branch Library, NAACP award-winning children’s book author Alice Faye Duncan begins her presentation with a warmup.

“Shake, shake, shake,” she chants, “shake the wiggles off.”

Snapping along and shaking in place, a roomful of children and their caretakers echo Faye Duncan.

“Clap, clap, clap,” Faye Duncan orders the children, “clap the wiggles off.”

Faye Duncan is a children’s book author who writes about Black experiences, culture and history and she’s made a virtual appearance here in East Austin to kick off the library’s Juneteenth Jubilee, a four-and-a-half hour event featuring an author visit, a book raffle, activities and refreshments.

Faye Duncan begins to read Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free: The True Story of the Grandmother of Juneteenth, a book she wrote documenting the life of the North Texas educator who helped turn Juneteenth into a federal holiday.

Storytime with author Alice Faye Duncan.
Sean Saldana
Texas Standard
Storytime with author Alice Faye Duncan.

“The children lifted their hands and prayed,” she reads to the children. “Freedom, hope and joy divine. Juneteenth means it’s freedom time.”

Duncan wraps up her presentation by making sure kids know that despite its national status, Juneteenth’s culture and history is tied to the Lone Star State.

“On Juneteenth, you can get you a couple of bottles of Big Red, which is red cream soda,” she tells families. “Folks in Texas have been celebrating Juneteenth with Big Red since 1937. And that’s Texas history for you.”

“I just love that the library does free events. To teach kids history and bring the community together, I think it’s an incredible use of funds,” Liah Rosen, accompanied by her 16-month-old daughter, said.

“It wasn’t until college that I learned about Juneteenth,” she continued, motioning toward her toddler. “I’d like for her to know it her whole life.”

“It’s everyone’s quilt. It’s a unity quilt.” – Parks and Recreation

At this point in the Juneteenth Jubilee, the library staff kicks things into high gear: handing out food and drinks, setting up activities, and keeping kids entertained.

“We got sandwich trays, chips and cookies,” said library associate Katrina Townsend while motioning to a table in the corner of the community room. “They’re here until they’re gone.”

In the main section of the library, children from the nearby Govalle Elementary School are getting settled at a set of specially arranged tables.

The students are here with Ace-Austin, an after-school and summer program offered by the Austin Independent School District “so there’s no summer slide,” according to site coordinator Pamela McKinney.

“In our summer programs throughout East Austin, we acknowledge Juneteenth,” she said.

McKinney is supervising children as they arrange plastic beads on pegboards.

“This is our perler bead station,” explained library associate Kaitlin Raftus. “Perler beads are small, plastic, fusible beads that you can iron together.”

The Willie Mae Kirk library has supplied community members with beads and materials in red, white, and blue – the colors of the Juneteenth flag.

First designed in 1997, the Juneteenth flag adopts the same colors as the American flag, to signify that even while enslaved, Black people were still Americans.

“We’ve got folks making a Juneteenth flag out of perler beads,” Raftus said. “They can make their name. They could just make a design with beautiful colors or just something to represent the celebration.”

Raftus also talks about the main event of the day: a unity quilt community members of the public will be able to contribute to.

“We’ve already pre-cut the fabric, ” Raftus said. “People can draw a design, they can write a message, they can put whatever they want on that square that speaks to them, and then we’ll put it all together in one big community unity quilt.”

Once all the pre-cut patches are collected, they’ll be assembled into the Willie Mae Kirk Juneteenth Community Quilt.

“We’d love to make a tradition out of this so that people can come back every year and we can see how the quilt changes year to year,” Raftus said.

As of publication, the Willie Mae Kirk Branch is still accepting additions to its unity quilt.

Patches already submitted for the Willie Mae Kirk Unity Quilt.
Sean Saldana
Texas Standard
Patches already submitted for the Willie Mae Kirk Unity Quilt.

“Came a long way from a boat and an auction” – Isaiah Rashad

Back in the library’s meeting room, branch manager Sharlisa Addison spoke about why the Willie Mae Kirk Library has pulled out all the stops for this late-morning operation.

“Our library branch is named after Willie Mae Kirk, one of the founding community members. She was an educator,” she said.

Willie Mae Kirk is best known for her decades-long career as an educator as well as her local activism in Austin during the 60s and 70s, serving on the city’s first Human Rights Commission, the Library Commission and broadly advocating for civil rights.

In 2012, the City of Austin changed the name of the Oak Springs Library branch, dedicating it in honor of Kirk.

“Kids need to have a place where they can get any of the knowledge they need,” Kirk said at the time.

The Willie Mae Kirk Branch Library sits at the corner of Oak Springs Drive and Tillery Street in East Austin, the part of the city traditionally occupied by Austin’s minority communities.

“I think for me as the library branch manager,” reflects Addision, “I wanted to stay true to East Austin’s primary historical residents, which were African-American as well as Hispanic.”

Since the days of Willie Mae Kirk’s activism, the neighborhoods she advocated for have changed – becoming more diverse, but also more gentrified.

“We do recognize there’s a newcomer coming into the community,” Addison said. “So we want to honor the historic and welcome the newcomers to participate.”

Addison has one final thought on the Juneteenth Jubilee.

“If you saw our storytelling this morning, it’s about unity,” she explains “It’s about you, it’s about me, and it’s about us coming together.”

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