Santa Cruz Juneteenth
Santa Cruz, spring of 1991. Raymond Evans, then serving as assistant director of the Louden Nelson Center, decided it was time to bring the Juneteenth celebration to his adopted city.
A native of Texas, Evans once told me that he was shocked to find that there were no traces of Juneteenth in the region when he first arrived here. He had grown up in the predominantly all-black neighborhoods of Dallas, and from his earliest memories, Juneteenth was celebrated by the entire community, with “music and food, prayer and ecstatic jubilation.”
Evans wanted to recreate that sense of excitement and community pride in Santa Cruz.
Part of what has made the Juneteenth celebrations at Londen Nelson Community Center such an overwhelming success over the years is the eclectic nature of their offerings.
One of the historic links that Evans sought to make between Juneteenth and Santa Cruz was the longtime community legacy of former slave London “Louden” Nelson, who made Santa Cruz his home in the 1850s in the decade leading up to the Civil War, and after whom the community center downtown was named, following a sometimes contentious struggle, in 1979.
As I explained to Evans at the time, Nelson’s life had been celebrated by generations of local schoolchildren who made annual pilgrimages to his burial site at Evergreen Cemetery in Santa Cruz.
Nelson’s legendary act of generosity to the local school system has been a cultural touchstone in the community for more than a century.
Members of the Louden Nelson Memorial Committee gathered at Evergreen Cemetery in 1953 to honor Nelson’s life and contributions to the community. Photo courtesy of Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.
Details of London Nelson’s life are scant, and not a photograph or likeness remains. But a portrait emerges from historical accounts of a smart and resourceful man who was trusted and liked by adults and children alike, and who quickly joined in community and commercial life in his adopted town, going door-to-door selling produce grown on a plot by the river near what is now Downtown Santa Cruz.
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