Thanks mostly to Mayor Rory Hoskins, Forest Park started celebrating Juneteenth long before other communities even knew about it. The first time I heard about the holiday was in 2008. I was sitting in the backyard of my neighbor and friend, Commissioner Rory Hoskins. A native of Galveston, Texas, where the holiday originated, Rory was acutely aware of its significance.

He explained how General Granger spread the news of emancipation to the residents of Galveston, on June 19, 1865. At that time, there were 200,000 African Americans held in bondage in the state of Texas.

Hoskins promoted the holiday by holding annual pool parties in late-June at the aquatic center. He saw the holiday as a chance for families and friends to reconnect, while marking the end of the saddest chapter in American history. He also used the pool parties to reconnect Forest Park with Maywood, inviting a number of dignitaries from our neighbor to the west.

Among them was Lennel Grace, Maywood’s unofficial historian, who spoke of re-establishing the strong ties that once united the two villages. Grace was a driving force behind building the pedestrian bridge that now links Forest Park to Maywood. I saw Juneteenth as a holiday that unites all Americans in our effort to bridge racial divisions.

There was no Juneteenth pool party this year due to the pandemic, but there was a coming together of residents from Maywood and neighboring suburbs with the people of Forest Park. The marchers from the west started at 25th Avenue and came down Madison Street. My wife and I joined the throng and were immediately welcomed with water bottles.

The crowd was orderly, masked, and kept respectful distances while they chanted and raised fists. As we approached the Circle Avenue Bridge, we were handed posters for “Forest Park Against Racism.” We climbed to a comfortable perch, where we could see and hear the speeches. We pressed our signs against the fence to display them for the motorists passing by on the Eisenhower. They gave many encouraging honks. Even the el operators on the Blue Line tooted their horns.

Meanwhile, the bridge was decorated with signs bearing slogans about racial unity. When the music ended and speeches began, a superb sound system drowned out the expressway roar. Mayor Hoskins delivered an impassioned speech capturing the spirit of Juneteenth. 

As much as I enjoyed the pool parties, this was different. White people were a minority at those gatherings. On Circle bridge, we had a sea of different colors coming together to demand justice. Some of these demands came from young children. I was moved to tears, as they described being singled out as “different” because they were Black. They listed other injustices they had suffered as well. I admired their courage in speaking to a crowd as much as their words.

As much as I praise Mayor Hoskins for his foresight in celebrating Juneteenth, his predecessor, Mayor Anthony Calderone sponsored a resolution marking Juneteenth in 2008. The resolution noted that more than 11 million Africans survived the passage to America to serve as enslaved people for 400 years. Mayor Calderone also marched in the 13th Annual Freedom Parade on the South Side.

Tony Calderone’s era is over, though, and it shows the progress we have made that we finally elected a Black mayor. We need political leaders of every color if we’re ever going to achieve racial unity. Circle Bridge was a symbolic destination for our march. As one of the speakers said, we should remember this Juneteenth event and the causes we are fighting for every time we cross it.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.