As the heat climbs, nothing cools like great music. “A Gulf Coast Juneteenth is a celebration of the African-American influence on the music of this area,” explains Cissy Segall-Davis, Managing Director of Miller Outdoor Theatre.
First, a bit of background on Juneteenth itself: while the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery technically, true emancipation didn’t reach Texas until almost two years later when on June 19, 1865, when General Gordon Granger ported in Galveston and shared the President’s news. Ever since, Juneteenth has been an event celebrating the family and togetherness; this year, Miller has planned a raucous day of great music, picnics and other soul-nourishing cultural treats.
Davis, who booked the event’s amazing roster of soul, gospel and blues artists, is proud to boast on the inclusion of standout gets like “Respect Yourself” and “Let’s Do It Again” singer and Civil Rights icon Mavis Staples; Fifth Ward-born Milton Hopkins and the Hit City Blues Band and J Paul Jr. and the Zydeco NuBreedz. “Pops Staples’, Mavis’ father, once went to a Martin Luther King rally and famously said, ‘If he can preach it, we can sing it!’ And that makes not just for great gospel music, but for socially conscious soul singing.”
And with Staples’ recent appearances on CBS’ Late Show with Stephen Colbert and a featured track on the Gorillaz reunion album Humanz (the song to which she contributes, “Let Me Out,” was even released as a single!), the 77-year-old legend is likely to have generations of fans who love her for entirely different reasons. “She was a Kennedy Center honoree, and she’s still touring and recording new music," Davis says. "To still be relevant, to still ‘have it,' is just such a gift to share with the people of Houston, and for free.”
The night’s festivities, Davis explains, actually start before the concert at the Houston Museum of African-American Culture at 5 p.m. “That’s all part of the 6th Annual Walk to Freedom, where the walkers will proceed to the Holocaust Museum, then to Miller for an actual reading of the Emancipation Proclamation,” she says, adding, “something we’ve never done before.”
Following the document reading will be appearances by the actresses of the Ensemble Theatre’s regional premiere of Simply Simone, a short speech by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and video presentations of Houstonians sharing their Juneteenth memories. But, as Davis is quick to point out, “we’re only some of the many Juneteenth celebrations happening across the city.”
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Right down the road is the new program for Washington on the Brazos, a curated exhibit full of inspired art pieces and historical artifacts from Texas’ past. That event, which will be held for free on June 24 until 4 p.m., will also feature speeches from Hugh McElroy, '70s college football star from Texas A&M; and Dr. Andrew Torget, author and Professor of History at UNT. Beyond that, there’s the official rededication of Emancipation Park with activates throughout the weekend and the Houston Ebony Opera Guild’s Annual Summer Concert.
Davis hopes this specific Juneteenth celebration feels “extra special,” because for the first time, the Miller has been awarded money by the National Endowment of the Arts, the government-sponsored cultural-support organization currently on the Trump Administration's budgetary chopping block. “We were so honored to be selected by the NEA for the first time," Davis says. "It clearly spoke to them, and we wanted to make their investment worth it.
"And at a free event like this, you’ll see people of all backgrounds — [multiple] generations of families and friends — out enjoying the show, shoulder to shoulder," she adds. "What the NEA does brings communities together, as we all have stories to share, stories that move people. As we’re all one human race, and we must support one another.”
Performance is schedule for 7 p.m. on June 19 at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park. For information, call 281-373-3386 or visit milleroutdoortheatre.com. Free for all, tickets available for reservations.