Bring Back Juneteenth!

Curtis Faulkner wants to throw a $2 million party celebrating the end of slavery — and he wants you to pay for it.

As legend has it, Texas slaves did not learn of their freedom until Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay on June 19, 1865 — a full two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln made his Emancipation Proclamation. June 19, or "Juneteenth," soon became an annual day of celebration in the Lone Star State.

In St. Louis the holiday has yet to take hold, but as Curtis Faulkner will tell you, it's not for lack of trying. From 1997 to 2001, Faulkner struggled to host a yearly Juneteenth jazz festival in the area. Unlike the similar, more successful events he organized in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, Faulkner claims the St. Louis festival was plagued both by public ignorance about Juneteenth and by a lack of corporate sponsorship.

"For African Americans this date is like the Fourth of July," says the 58-year-old Faulkner. "But just try telling that to a corporate sponsor like Anheuser-Busch. They're like, 'Yeah, right. And how much beer is that going to move?'"

Curtis Faulkner, executive director of  the Juneteenth  Heritage & Jazz Festival.
Jennifer Silverberg
Curtis Faulkner, executive director of the Juneteenth Heritage & Jazz Festival.

Now, six years removed from his last Juneteenth festival, Faulkner plans to reinvigorate the project. Through his pale blue eyes, Faulkner sees a grand, multi-day celebration that he says will rival the famed New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in both size and popularity. He imagines hosting the party in the parking lot of Jamestown Mall in Florissant, thereby pumping life and money into a predominantly black neighborhood. He anticipates booking headline acts such as Roy Ayers, Lonnie Liston Smith, Freddy Cole and Erykah Badu.

Faulkner also envisions taxpayers paying for the bash — and it won't come cheap. In March, State Representative Juanita Walton (a Democrat from north St. Louis county) introduced a bill that would provide an annual appropriation of $2 million from the state's general revenue to fund the Missouri Juneteenth Heritage & Jazz Festival and Memorial.

Critics of the bill — of which there are many — argue that such funding would be irresponsible, especially considering Faulkner's questionable past and outspoken rhetoric.

Faulkner, meanwhile, contends that the bill is being stalled simply because of race and politics, with the state's arts council controlled by an all-white board and Missouri's black legislators kowtowing to the established authority. Last year Faulkner shocked members of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus when he allegedly called several female legislators "bitches" for failing to sponsor an earlier proposal.

"That is categorically wrong and untrue," Faulkner says today. "That conversation occurred at 10:30 at night after a long session at the state capitol, and they weren't my words. Some male legislators inferred that the women were acting like 'bitches.'"

Faulkner is less reluctant to pull his punches when it comes to the Missouri Arts Council. "The fact of the matter," he says, "is they don't feel comfortable giving $2 million to a black arts group."

Beverly Strohmeyer, executive director of the arts council, did not return calls seeking comment.

In 2003 Faulkner helped usher in a state statute establishing June 19 as "Emancipation Day" in Missouri. The legislation allowed for state funds to support a Juneteenth memorial. Under the bill now proposed by Juanita Walton, the festival and memorial would receive $2 million annually — or approximately 10 percent of the revenue the state takes in from an income tax on non-resident professional athletes and entertainers. Much of that tax money is currently allocated to the MAC, which this year is expected to receive $7.8 million in funds that it, in turn, will disperse as grants to hundreds of arts organizations across the state.

Faulkner contends that much of the so-called athlete-and-entertainment tax is funded by blacks. According to National Football League payrolls, he claims, black football players visiting Missouri to play the Kansas City Chiefs and the St. Louis Rams paid $12 million into the state coffers in 2005, or 51 percent of the entire tax paid by non-resident athletes and entertainers that year.

"You think these people would be happy knowing their money is going to support only white arts groups?" asks an indignant Faulkner, who notes that the Saint Louis Zoo, the Saint Louis Science Center, and other arts and cultural organizations receive millions in tax funding each year. "All I'm saying is what's good for the gander is also good for the goose."

In late March an analyst with the Missouri Department of Economic Development warned that the state would have little oversight over how the Juneteenth memorial spends the $2 million and labeled its funding proposal as setting a "dangerous precedent." In response to the warning, Faulkner left an indignant voicemail with Missouri Citizens for the Arts lobbyist Kyna Iman, whom he believes is attempting to sabotage the bill.

"The people who wanted to enslave Dred Scott probably said he was setting a 'dangerous precedent' too," Faulkner fumed in the phone message. "To not support this effort has to be one of the premier racial acts in the entire region."

A bemused Iman says she and the Missouri Arts Council agreed to assist Faulkner in getting funding but were under the impression the money would benefit a host of black arts groups. Later, when she read the bill proposed by Walton (HB 1126), Iman says she discovered that all of the money was to be allocated to the Juneteenth memorial, which currently lacks an oversight commission.

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