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Local Juneteenth Celebrations Honor Local Black History and Community

Kenyona "Sunny" Matthews stands next to the site of the unmarked graves of freed slave couple John Hansparker and his wife, Emily, and their daughter, Helen, at Oakwood Cemetery in Cuyahoga Falls. Matthews is one of the lead organizers of the effort to honor the Hansparkers and involved in fundraising efforts to install grave markers.

Summit County residents can attend one of several Juneteenth celebrations on June 19 to commemorate the day that enslaved African Americans in Texas learned of their freedom.

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, but slaveholders in Texas took advantage of the state’s remote geography to withhold the news from enslaved people. That changed on June 19, 1865, when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to share the news of emancipation. Hence, Juneteenth was born. (In December of that year, ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution formally abolished slavery.)

The holiday is as much about acknowledging the struggle for freedom as it is about celebrating the joy, culture and achievements of Black people in America.

Akron native Gerald A. Carter, who died in September at age 67, organized the first Juneteenth celebration in Akron in 1998. A fierce advocate for his community, Carter was involved in Juneteenth celebrations in the city until his death.

Last year, he passed the torch to Fela Sutton and Keith Burnett, who co-organized the 2020 West Akron Juneteenth Festival.

2021 Akron Juneteenth Festival

Now, Sutton is organizing the 2021 Akron Juneteenth Festival at Stoner/Hawkins Park. The event, which begins at noon and ends at 7 p.m., is free and open to all families and aims to be a meeting ground for community members to create positive change in their communities.

“My biggest goal is unity and actually bringing us together to start these conversations, to find people that are like-minded, to be able to attack issues with people in the community,”  Sutton said. “The most important thing about Juneteenth this year is realizing our unity despite our differences.”

The festival will feature an open-air market of Black-owned vendors, youth activities, free food for kids, an open mic and community conversation and a car show.

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The Gerald R. Carter Teen Talent Show and Founder Appreciation will take place from 3 to 5 p.m. In addition to watching the talent show, attendees will have an opportunity to share words about what Carter meant to them.

“He inspired the entire community. It wasn’t just through the Juneteenth festival. He was very active in the community in small and large ways. He’s inspired me a lot to do the same thing,” Sutton said of Carter.

“It’s more of an organic activism, just being there when people need you and putting on events and having community gatherings where people are being helped and being loved and entertained all at the same time, ” Sutton said. “His big focus was Black excellence. He [was] always telling people how beautiful they are, how talented they are, and giving them platforms to show that. He created the kids’ talent show. That was his baby.”

The talent show is open to anyone 12 to 19. To participate in the show, people must pre-register by Wednesday, June 16, by emailing or calling 330-303-1531 or 330-776-5050.

Those who wish to donate to the festival may do so at

Honoring the Hansparkers, a formerly enslaved family in Cuyahoga Falls

Another event in Cuyahoga Falls will commemorate John and Emily Hansparker, a formerly enslaved couple who, along with their child, Helen, are buried in unmarked graves at Oakwood Cemetery.

Juneteenth memorial for the Hansparkers will begin at noon June 19 at the cemetery chapel on 2420 Oakwood Drive in Cuyahoga Falls. Following a series of speeches about the Hansparkers and the importance of Juneteenth and honoring African American ancestors, a processional will lead attendees to the gravesites.

Speakers at the event include Cuyahoga Falls Councilwoman Mary Nichols Rhodes, the Rev. E. Regis Bunch, the Rev. Ray Greene Jr.,  local historian Jeri Wilcox Holland and state Rep. Tavia Galonski.

Kenyona “Sunny” Matthews, who is co-organizing the event with Holland and Nichol Rhodes, said the idea for the commemoration came to life after Holland shared her research into unmarked graves of formerly enslaved people in the area.

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The Hansparkers met in 1866 in Cuyahoga Falls following their emancipation. They married the next year. John worked at the Falls Rivet Works, and Emily was a laundress. The couple lived at 325 S. Front St., now the site of a hotel parking lot.

“They made a life here in Cuyahoga Falls,” Matthews said.

The John & Emily Hansparker Memorial Fund is now raising money to install grave markers.

Marking the graves and acknowledging the Hansparkers’ legacy is an important step toward racial healing and reconciliation, Matthews said.

“I am a firm believer in this African proverb: ‘The way out is back through.’ If we want to heal our society, if we want to get to a point where all people are treated the same … We have to have a reckoning with how we interacted with each other in the past. And we need to tell the stories of those who thrived, survived, resisted and who had to live in these oppressive states. And this is a way to tell that story, and Juneteenth is a way to commemorate the struggle but also celebrate the resistance and the ending of enslavement in the United States,” Matthews said.

The event holds a special significance to Matthews, who described the difficulties many Black people face when attempting to trace their family lineage. One of the hallmarks of slavery was the cruel practice of family separation.

“As a Black person … I don’t have a lineage to point to. I don’t know a history to say, ‘These are my people, and this is how they [came],’ ” Matthews said.

“For me, the Hansparkers are my ancestors, and it’s going to be a humbling experience to stand there and just hold space in my heart for my family,” she said. “And I think for a lot of African Americans, we grieve collectively. We have to grieve the Hansparkers, but we also have to uplift their lives, collectively. I’m just super excited to celebrate the joy and the smiles and the existence of John and Emily, my family.”

Matthews is hopeful that fundraising efforts will succeed.

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“The hope is that we will be able to raise the funds to do so soon and then we will be able to have another celebration,” she said.

To donate to the John & Emily Hansparker Memorial Fund,  visit:

East Akron Reunion

Akron Ward 5 Councilwoman Tara Mosley Samples is organizing the East Akron Reunion, scheduled for June 18 and June 19.

The two-day-long celebration will kick off with an adult-only meet and greet at the East Akron Neighborhood Development Corp. on 550 S. Arlington St. The meet and greet will feature door prizes and music from DJ Chaka.

A family and community picnic will take place the following day, from noon to 6 p.m. at the Joy Park Community Center on James Ingram Way. The event, which is free and open to everyone, will include live music, community awards, local vendors, more music by DJ Smoove and a mobile vaccine clinic by Summit County Public Health, which is a co-sponsor of the event.

No pre-registration is required to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, and people can walk up anytime from noon to 6 p.m. to receive their shots at the Joy Park Community Center.

Samples, who introduced a resolution commemorating Juneteenth weekend in the city of Akron, said that the goal is to bring together community members and families.

“I want the families who live across the city — not just East Akron — to just come out in celebration,” she said.

“We do have a splash pad at Joy Park that we would love to see our children enjoying,” she added.

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The celebration also will honor Gerald Carter’s enduring legacy.

“We will be doing something in honor of Mr. Carter at Joy Park on Saturday, because he was really the author and creator of Juneteenth here in the city of Akron. He was the one who put in all the blood, sweat and tears over the years trying to keep Juneteenth going,” Samples said.

Vendors interested in participating in the June 19 celebration should email their requests to

The Summit County Historical Society’s Juneteenth Symposium

The Summit County Historical Society will host a Juneteenth Symposium, community picnic and a short play by Reva Golden 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. June 19.

Guests will be seated under a tent at the Perkins Stone Mansion on 550 Copley Road in Akron. The Perkins Stone Mansion and the John Brown House will be open during the symposium.

A panel on equality and equity will take places 10-11 a.m. Moderated by the Rev. David Nelson of New Hope Baptist Church, the panel will include remarks from Akron Public Schools Chief Diversity Officer Carla Chapman, YEPAW Founder and Artistic Director Leslie Parker Barnes, Akron Police Information Officer Lt. Michael Miller, Greater Akron Chamber Vice President of Opportunities and Inclusion the Rev. Robert DeJournett, Akron Urban League Director of Diversity and Strategic Initiatives Jennifer Ross and the Rev. Kevin Rushing, pastor of United Baptist Church.

A free picnic meal, catered by A Taste of Fine Dining, will take place 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the Perkins Stone Mansion lawn. Nicole’s Restaurant and Irie Jamaican Kitchen will also offer food tastings. Guests are encouraged to register for the picnic online at

Golden, a local actor and education community outreach staff member for the society, will put on two iterations of her play, “A Life of John Brown,”  at 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. The play stars Golden as Harriet Tubman, Dennis Runkle as John Brown and Corin B. Self as Frederick Douglass. Deb Lemire will narrate.

Artworks by the society’s artist in residence, Jeremy Jenkins, will be on view on the event grounds.

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For more information about the Juneteenth Symposium, visit

This article has been corrected to clarify the historical sequence of emancipation.

Seyma Bayram is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Learn more at Contact her at or 330-996-3327 or on Twitter @SeymaBayram0.

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