Mayor, councilwoman, interim city manager take annual Antioch Juneteenth celebration from young African-American organizer

East County 2022 Juneteenth flier promoting the event in Brentwood.

And committee of 11 other African American Antioch residents to make it “bigger and better”; two councilmembers decry action; after city withdraws permit Claryssa Wilson, daughter of a Thorpe recall proponent, relocates her event to Brentwood; Antioch’s event might move to Williamson Ranch Park, Celebrate Antioch Foundation no longer involved, will continue to support Wilson’s event; questions go unanswered

Claryssa Wilson. Source: her Facebook page posted on March 8, 2022.

By Allen D. Payton

With a little over two months before the planned and promoted annual Antioch Juneteenth Celebration, Mayor Lamar Thorpe, District 1 Councilwoman Tamisha Torres-Walker and Interim City Manager Con Johnson decided to take the event from Claryssa Wilson, the young African-American college student who has organized it for the past two years. Johnson had Director of Parks and Recreation Brad Helfenberger give Wilson the news that the City was withdrawing the permit for the event planned for Waldie Plaza in Antioch’s historic downtown Rivertown. She in turn passed the information on to her committee of 11 other African-American Antioch residents, including her mother Velma and Antioch School Board Trustee Dr. Clyde Lewis.

According to Velma, Johnson said it would now be a city event and wanted it “planned by the African-American community”.

Juneteenth honors the day the slaves in Texas were informed by the Union Army on June 19, 1865 that they were free, two-and-a-half years after President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. It has become a worldwide event celebrated in the U.S. and other countries.

This year’s event in Antioch was included as one of the City’s Sesquicentennial events sponsored and promoted by the Celebrate Antioch Foundation (CAF), which has served as the Juneteenth committee’s fiscal agent. While CAF is no longer involved in the Antioch event, the organization will continue to support Wilson’s event which has been relocated to Brentwood and rebranded as the East County Juneteenth Celebration.

Velma Wilson said the decision was made in a meeting attended by Thorpe, Torres-Walker, Johnson and Helfenberger. The Wilsons were invited to attend a later organizing meeting held in April, but they declined. Who attended that meeting hasn’t been shared. Velma has been an outspoken opponent of Thorpe, supporting his recall as one of the 20 proponents. (See related article)

Two Councilmembers Decry City Action

During the April 12th meeting, District 3 Councilwoman Lori Ogorchock decried the action taking the event away from Claryssa saying, “We as council have made youth a priority. We have a beautiful, African American young woman that’s grown up in our community that’s created events such as Stuff the Bus and Juneteenth. Now, we as a city, are taking this event from her. Her name is Claryssa Wilson. She created the Juneteenth event here, in the city. It started small but it’s actually grown greatly in size. I’m not sure why we want to take this event away from her. The interim city manager has directed our recreation department director, Brad Helfenberger to take it over. I would ask that stop and allow it to go back to Miss Claryssa Wilson. Nobody else in the city wanted to participate to help create this event. So, I’m gonna ask that that be stopped. Thank you.”

Mayor Pro Tem Mike Barbanica echoed Ogorchock’s sentiments..

“Probably two hours before the meeting, I learned of Miss Wilson not having the Juneteenth,” he said. “I’m not sure what caused that. But over the next week I will speak to the interim city manager and have a conversation about that. I do support her doing this. She’s done it for several years. I’ve attended her event. She’s put on a very good event.”

Claryssa Wilson Not Happy

On Monday, April 18 in an interview with Claryssa Wilson she said, “It was already planned. This will be the third one. The first one was in 2020 on Thomas Gaines’ land.” She had previously served as the co-host for the 2016 Antioch Juneteenth Celebration.

“I was pulled into it after my mom was notified,” Claryssa continued, explaining how the event was taken from her. “I was on the phone with my mom and Brad Helfenberger. He called us. He basically just expressed that the city wanted to expand on Juneteenth and said with the expansion, he used the phrase ‘making it bigger and better’. He stated that he wanted to invite me to be around the table with a host of other African Americans in the community who wanted to come together and put on the event.”

Asked if they wanted to put on the event with her, she replied. “No, being I’m the one who has been planning and hosting it. He said it wouldn’t be an event where one person was getting the credit.”

Original flier promoting the Antioch Juneteenth event posted on the Celebrate Antioch Foundation Facebook page on March 5, 2022.

“I asked him what that meant. Did that mean I was no longer going to be hosting it or leading the meeting or collaborating or leaving me out of it?” Claryssa shared. “He was basically saying that they wanted me to be there and share the plans I already had in place for this year’s Juneteenth then they would decide how to expand on it.”

“He later included some people in an email with an initial event. I didn’t receive the email,” Claryssa stated. “My mom did and asked Brad why I wasn’t included. He said he didn’t have my email address. She (Velma) also said ‘the meetings would have to be done virtually since Claryssa is in college in San Diego’.”

Regarding Grace Bible Fellowship Claryssa said, “We tried to work with them, last year to collaborate. But they chose to have their own event.”

“I was already working on Plan B before the meeting because I didn’t appreciate them wanting to take all the work I’ve done and not give me any jurisdiction over anything regarding the event,” Claryssa said. “I didn’t end up attending the meeting because I felt it wasn’t going to be productive and I was going to be strong armed and give up all my information, so they don’t have to start from scratch.”

“If you guys are so willing to take on this event two months before…” she continued, sharing her thoughts. “I kept asking Brad if the City wanted to take it over or collaborate. His response was that the City recognizes this is an important event and wants to expand it.”

Asked if anyone from CAF had spoken with her, Claryssa said, “We’ve all communicated. Celebrate Antioch has been the fiscal agent since we first started, providing the insurance and we raise funds through their non-profit. Then they pay everything, the entertainment. What’s bothersome to them as well, CAF’s argument is why didn’t anyone come to us and then where the event is going to take place other than Waldie Plaza?”

“Joy, Michael and Tammy of Celebrate Antioch said whatever I decide to do they will support me,” she added.

“Plan B” Relocates Claryssa’s Event to Brentwood

Asked what her “Plan B” is and is she moving forward on it Claryssa responded, “The plan is to move it outside of Antioch. Brentwood was the first to say they’d take it on. I’ve been working with both residents and city officials. We’ve gotten our permits filled out and they’re supposed to be approving them, this week.” The event has since been approved.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Claryssa continued. “I believe the Juneteenth celebration has been a benefit to the city of Antioch. Ours is now being rebranded as an East County Juneteenth. It will be located at City Park next to the Brentwood City Hall.”

“So, we’re reaching out to all the cities in East County to make this a bigger event, including Pittsburg, and Oakley, too. But because it’s so late in the game I can’t say the other cities are supporting it, yet,” she added, saying that may have to wait until next year.

Claryssa said she’s studying Africana Studies and minoring in Counseling and Social Change and in her Junior year at San Diego State University.

Velma Wilson Disappointed Says Who Made the Decision

Velma Wilson offered additional details about what occurred and her disappointment.

“Con said we were welcome at the meeting, but we said, ‘no’,” she shared. “Con responded that it’s now a city event.”

“Claryssa has been planning this for a year and we have contracts in place,” Velma stated. “Joy (Motts, president of CAF) sent an email to Con who said, ‘this should be something planned by the African-American community’.”

“Brad said Lamar, Tamisha and Con gave him a directive that the city is going in a different direction,” Velma continued. “It would be a city-sponsored event. Joy asked if the city is going to pay for it and Brad said he would be submitting a budget revise for any additional costs. But they didn’t know what that was.”

Email From Velma Wilson Offers More Details

In an email sent to an Antioch service club member on April 30 and copying 25 others, including the Herald, Velma Wilson wrote, “The Let Freedom Ring: Antioch Juneteenth Celebration information that was sent to you on April 6th is no longer valid. We were notified after this information was emailed to you and a few individuals, by Brad who is the Parks and Rec Director that he was given a directive by Lamar Thorpe, Tamisha Torres-Walker and Con Johnson that the ‘city wants to go in a different direction by having the event planned by African American community members to make the event bigger and better’.

The event planning for this event has been underway for almost a year as Claryssa who is an African American youth started the initial plans with a committee that has other African American community members involved in addition to the partnership with the Celebrate Antioch Foundation because we have been with Celebrate Antioch for 10 years. The event plans started immediately following last year’s VERY successful event. No one gave my daughter the respect of contacting her prior to such a directive but we move forward.

Therefore, the Let Freedom Ring: Antioch Juneteenth Celebration that Claryssa was organizing with the support of Celebrate Antioch Foundation has been Rebranded to reflect all of East Contra Costa County and has been relocated accordingly. If the (organization’s name deleted) would like to participate please submit a new request to EastCountyJuneteenth@gmail.com as the vendor spaces are almost full as of today. For additional questions, feel free to contact me or Claryssa.”

Questions for Thorpe, Torres-Walker, City Staff and CAF Leaders

On Thursday, April 21, an email was sent to Thorpe, Torres-Walker, Johnson, Helfenberger, CAF leaders Joy Motts, Michael Gabrielson and Tammy Larsen, as well as Assistant City Manager Rosanna Bayon-Moore with the following information and questions:

“I’ve been informed by Claryssa and Velma Wilson, that the City is taking over this year’s CAF-sponsored Antioch Juneteenth Celebration as part of the Sesquicentennial activities, wanting to make it ‘bigger and better’.

Is that true? If so, who made the decision, when did it occur and why? If it was Johnson, when did the council give you direction to do that after having approved the budget for this year’s Sesquicentennial events late, last year?

Did the City pull the approved permit for Claryssa and CAF to use Waldie Plaza, as planned and promoted on CAF’s website?

Why take it from an Antioch youth, specifically the one who organized the Juneteenth event for the past two years, and has already done all the planning for this year’s event?

Mayor Thorpe and Councilwoman Torres-Walker, doesn’t that work against your efforts to support the youth of our city? Is that fair and right to do to Claryssa?

Where is the event going to be held, instead of Waldie Plaza if it’s going to be ‘bigger’? How do you plan to make it ‘better’?

Is there adequate time for proper planning with just two months before the event? Or is it being combined with Grace Bible Fellowship’s Juneteenth event?

Was a meeting held about the event, last week? Who was invited and who attended that meeting?”

Additional questions were emailed to Helfenberger on Tuesday, April 26 asking, “what was the decision on this year’s Juneteenth Celebration in Antioch? Is the City’s being combined with Grace Bible Fellowship’s event? Or is the City and CAF not hosting one, now that Claryssa Wilson has moved hers to Brentwood?”

Antioch Event Might Relocate to Williamson Ranch Park, CAF Not Involved Will Support Claryssa’s Event in Brentwood

On Tuesday, May 3, Gabrielson shared about the Juneteenth event in Antioch that, “CAF is not involved, and the city still hasn’t decided location and time as of 11 am, today.”

“I just heard, today they are considering Williamson Ranch (Park) but nothing confirmed,” he added.

If the event is relocated, that will relieve traffic and parking challenges for the Rivertown Father’s Day Car Show, which will be held on W. 2nd and G Streets, from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM. It is also promoted by CAF as part of this year’s Sesquicentennial Celebration. It is also sponsored by the Rivertown Merchants.

In addition, Motts shared, “The Celebrate Antioch Foundation Juneteenth event has been changed to the East County Juneteenth and will be held in Brentwood at City Park, 12pm to 5pm. As in past years, CAF members Claryssa and Velma Wilson are the primary organizers of this event.  All amenities, music, entertainment is still in place, but the venue has been moved. We are updating our sites ASAP.”

No responses were received from any of the city officials as of Wednesday, May 4.

Grace Bible Fellowship to Hold Own Juneteenth Event Friday and Saturday, June 17 and 18

According to Pastor Kirkland Smith of Grace Bible Fellowship, his church will once again hold their annual Juneteenth Celebration on their grounds over two days, Friday and Saturday, June 17 and 18. They’ve been asked to help with Antioch’s event, which he said they’ll do but in a smaller way on Sunday.

Please check back later for any updates to this report.

 

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