Iowa Juneteenth theme ‘Free to be,’ celebration set for June 9-23 in Des Moines

Organizers are busy planning the Iowa Juneteenth Observance 2023 in Des Moines. There’s still time to become a sponsor or vendor.

From classrooms to capitols, Black history is under assault. That’s why Juneteenth celebrations will be even more important this year, said Dwana Bradley, Iowa Juneteenth Observance general chairperson. 

“The way that we’re going, if we don’t get a hold of some things,” she said. “We just don’t want to see that happen . . . that’s part of the reason that Juneteenth exists. We don’t want you to forget our history.”

View a list of Juneteenth events from around the state after the story ⬇️

Juneteenth marks June 19, 1865, when the last enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, learned of their freedom — two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. Blacks began celebrating their freedom in 1866, with cookouts, prayer services and community events. Today, Juneteenth is celebrated worldwide and is the nation’s longest running annual celebration of Black culture.

“Juneteenth is about the fact that we had people who couldn’t name themselves,” she said. “Imagine not being able to name yourself.”

The Iowa Juneteenth theme this year is Free to Be. The Des Moines celebration, held over the span of two weeks, includes food, music, vendors, a banquet and more.

“We want people to just just get ready for a great time,” she said. 

 Bradley hopes attendees use the event to draw strength from their ancestors, know their history and take time to enjoy the freedoms they have today. 

“That’s where I really came up with the idea of being free to be but also talking about the things that are happening that can limit some of those freedoms that we feel take place,” she said. “So being mindful that we’re free to be but also being mindful that there’s work to do.”

So who is Juneteenth for?

“I think there’s this misconception that Juneteenth is just for Black folks,” said Bradley. “I get that all the time.”

Juneteenth is ultimately a celebration that brings Black people together, but the event underscores important concepts for the larger community to understand, she said.  

“I want to educate you about our culture,” she said. “I want to talk to you about our history — this history that we seem to be not wanting to have conversations about still, we’re still trying to cover up. Slavery did exist . . . But what we’re looking at here as a community is: We’re looking at our past. We’re looking at our present and our future.”

She added: “The reason we keep looking back on our past is we don’t want history to repeat itself. So we’re having these conversations to educate folks, and also we want you to be a part of the celebration with us.”

Bradley said she won’t apologize for the people on the stage “who will be looking like us . . . It’s our celebration.” But she encourages all people to celebrate respectfully and “not overtake” the event.

“We’re not trying to commercialize Juneteenth — we are still trying to make it what it is, and for me it’s about celebrating freedom. It’s about celebrating our history,” she said. “It’s about celebrating where we want to get to collectively.”

Juneteenth, however, is not a time to “discredit anything and say things didn’t happen or didn’t exist,” Bradley said. 

“This is a time where I tell people, it’s not about how you’re feeling,” she said. “You need to hear about what my lived experience has been and what I’ve experienced, about the strength of my ancestors that keep me going to paint a better picture for my kids and their kids’ kids.”

Dwana Bradley, general chairperson of the Iowa Juneteenth Observance 2022 in downtown Des Moines. Video by Black Iowa News.

Bradley, who has managed Juneteenth for eight years, gives presentations about Juneteenth to various libraries and organizations across the state. The organization is also helping Ottumwa plan its Juneteenth celebration, she said. 

“We’re really excited about being able to just kind of help them get going,” Bradley said. “The bulk of the organization has always been to help other communities across the state of Iowa. If they need help with their events, we’ll show you how we do things here. We’ll help you out.”

Last year saw an explosion of Juneteenth events in Iowa’s cities. Bradley said she encourages communities to celebrate the holiday with displays and events during June and then visit downtown Des Moines for Neighbor’s Day on June 17. 

“Hopefully we’ll get to the point where everyone can go to Neighbor’s Day downtown. Just to bring us all together on that day, the third Saturday in June, which is just commemorative for the founder of the organization. He pushed for that,” she said.

Gary Lawson, Juneteenth general chair emeritus, founded the Des Moines celebration in 1990 and pushed for annual statewide recognition in 2002. 

“I’m always in debt to Gary,” she said. “This community is in debt to Gary. We don’t always give people their flowers, but he’s deserving of every recognition for the work that he’s done.”

Free to be: Iowa Juneteenth Observance 2023 in Des Moines

Juneteenth: Free to Be: June 9-23. Neighbor’s Day will be held on June 17, at the Western Gateway Park area in downtown Des Moines.

June 9 — Kickoff

June 10 — Living History Farms in Urbandale

June 11 — Gospel event

June 12 — Iowa Historical Building

June 15 — Community Builders Banquet. Essay contest winners will be recognized. Eight community members from across Iowa will receive awards. The categories are education, political advocacy, liberty, citizenship, jazz, gospel and health. Nominate someone by April 28.

June 16 — Golf outing

June 17 — Neighbor’s Day

June 19 — Black Women for Healthy Living’s Annual Juneteenth Tea 

June 19 — Free Movie night at Valley West Mall

June 23 — Culture of Color, a social event designed to appeal to young people

Iowa Juneteenth: What’s New

The Juneteenth parade is back after the coronavirus pandemic caused a three-year absence. The parade is slated to begin at 10 a.m. near the Iowa State Capitol and run west along Grand Avenue to the Western Gateway Park on Neighbor’s Day. Stay up to date on the route via the website

Children’s Events

Hands-on activities and reading time for children will be held during Neighbor’s Day on the lawn of the Des Moines Public Library. The Science Center of Iowa will also have children’s activities. 


Want to have a booth during Juneteenth? Register on the website. Applicants must pay a $25 non-refundable application fee. Once approved by the Juneteenth Committee, the balance is due.

  • Regular booths are $150 (which includes the non-refundable $25 application fee.)
  • Food vendors are $250 (which includes the non-refundable $25 application fee.)

Peruse the application and requirements.

Food Vendors

More space has been set aside this year for food vendors, said Kourtney Perry, project manager for Iowa Juneteenth. She encourages food vendors to submit their applications right away. 

“There are opportunities for more food vendors to come,” Perry said. “We highly encourage those food truck vendors to apply.”

Bradley said they want food offerings to satisfy a variety of palates, including ethnic dishes and also vegan and vegetarian options. 

“Food is our thing,” Bradley said. 

Iowa Juneteenth volunteers

Planning for the huge event which draws thousands begins the month after Juneteenth ends. Bradley and Perry debrief before starting the planning process and organizing volunteers. About eight committees manage each part. Bradley said many of the volunteers return each year. By October, the planning is underway in earnest. 

Want to help plan next year’s Juneteenth? This August, the organization will begin seeking new volunteers to serve on Juneteenth planning committees. 

“We want the community involved,” Bradley said.

Register here


There’s still time for businesses to step forward as sponsors. Sponsors can visit the website or email

“We are halfway to our fundraising goal,” Bradley said. “I’m excited about that, but we still want to get those sponsors who want to be a part of it.”

Free rides from DART and more

Hop on a bus for free and head downtown to Neighbor’s Day on June 17 in Des Moines.

“There’s also a cooling station,” Perry said. “And, we’re adding more accessible bathrooms.”

Juneteenth Events across Iowa

The African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids will hold its Juneteenth commemoration from June 10-June 17.

Quad City Juneteenth Festival

The Friends of MLK are proud to host the Quad City Juneteenth Festival from 11 a.m. – 6 p,m. Saturday, June 17, at the Lincoln Center TMBC at 318 E. 7th St., Davenport, IA.

Email your Juneteenth events to

This list will be updated.


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