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Juneteenth blossoms A founder looks back at how festival has flourished over the years

One word -- progress -- pops into William Cooper's mind when he thinks of the 36 years the Juneteenth Festival has been unfolding at Martin Luther King Park.

Cooper, a local artist and writer, became a central figure in revitalizing Buffalo's East Side following the 1967 riots -- which left buildings shattered, many boarded up and left to crumble over years of neglect.

Not long after the riots, city officials gave Cooper and a group of local artists the opportunity to beautify the neighborhood of Jefferson Avenue and East Utica Street.

Then came the first Juneteenth Festival in 1976 -- a showcase for bringing people together, highlighting the neighborhood and celebrating African-American heritage.

Buffalo's Juneteenth has grown into the second-largest such celebration in the country, said Jerome Williams, festival marketing director.

"I got the other artists together, and we just painted," recalled Cooper, who was present for Saturday's Juneteenth festivities. "I'm really proud that the [Juneteenth Festival] is backed by history and the arts.

This year, one of Cooper's paintings -- a mural of life along Jefferson Avenue -- served as the featured image of festival T-shirts and banners. The original work is on display in the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library, at 1324 Jefferson.

The opening day of Juneteenth drew considerably more people than last year, when overcast weather dampened attendance, organizers said.

"Our weather is perfect," said Carrone Evon Crump, the festival's executive vice president. "We're just so happy and grateful with the diversity -- people from all walks of life."

The festival got under way with a parade -- featuring an array of marchers from dancers to members of the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame -- stretching from Genesee and Moselle streets to the park. Hungry customers packed the concession lines, energetic children ran around the festival's play area and athletes practiced at the park's basketball court in preparation for the Juneteenth tournament.

New to the festival this year was a recruiting area for local educational institutions and government agencies.

Buffalo firefighters displayed their equipment and even let festivalgoers try on firefighting gear.

"We're just out here having fun and showing the kids the gear," firefighter Dwayne Cathcart said.

The University at Buffalo, Erie Community College, NFTA Transit Police and Wilberforce (Ohio) University also were represented at Juneteenth.

Leaving Our Legacy, an organization whose mission is to educate adolescents about sexual health, also was represented. The organization has traditionally done this through community presentations, skits and outreach efforts, said group member Sherman Webb.

"It's about empowering and enlightening people that we can make a difference," Webb said.

The festival remains a continuing sign of community development in a neighborhood that has been no stranger to hardship in the past, Cooper added.

Juneteenth also serves as an annual meeting place for family and friends -- some reuniting after many years.

At his booth, Cooper greeted dozens of friends and fans, some checking out two of his books for sale -- one, a children's book, and the other, a novel set during the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott of 1955.

After 36 years, Cooper believes Juneteenth is a keeper.

"It lasted," he said. "Sometimes things just go by the wayside, but not this."

e-mail: jbolitho@buffnews.com