This weekend, tens of thousands of people visited the Juneteenth Music Festival in the Five Points neighborhood of Denver. Every year on Juneteenth weekend, Welton Street turns into a sea of people, with crowds spilling over into side streets to watch performers or browse vendor merchandise. The festival honors Five Points’ history, and will continue to keep alive its cultural traditions for many years to come.
Deeply rooted in Black History, the Five Points neighborhood has held Juneteenth festivals that date back to the early 1950s. But this year, the neighborhood celebrates Juneteenth and its rich musical history with an extra touch of Black magic–Friday, June 17th, marked the first time Five Points celebrated Juneteenth as a legitimized federal and state holiday.
31-year-old Annika Nwachuku, Five Points resident and visitor of the music festival, stayed toward the back of a large crowd while she half-listened to Sammy Mayfield pluck his guitar and half-observed the crowd in front of her with overwhelming content. This year’s festival is unlike any of the seventy ones before it, and the electrifying energy of the crowd gives this away.
Five Points has a unique background unlike other historical subdivisions in Denver. According to Nwachuku, “Five Points became one of the first neighborhoods to develop outside of Denver. It was originally a neighborhood designed to be culturally diverse, but by the 1920s, discriminatory housing policies and red-lining kept the vast majority of Denver’s black population in Five Points.”
Redlining was sneakily used to segregate people and reinforce the gap between Black and white people from the 1920s to the 1960s. Terry Gentry is a board member of the Black American West Museum and Heritage Center and her great grandfather was one of the first Black men to live in Five Points. In an interview, Gentry explained redlining as something that goes “way, way back, and is part of a process that perpetuates segregation.”
During this time, entire neighborhoods of Black Americans were crossed out by politicians in red ink on city maps, then given to banks with instructions to not loan money to the people residing there.
Practically stuck in Five Points, the predominantly Black community formed a strong sense of culture that centered around artistic expression. By the 1950s, Five Points was no longer just a redlined pocket of Denver that Black people could not escape–it was a mecca for the arts, and particularly jazz music at the time. The music-infused streets of Five Points created such waves in the world of jazz that musical legends such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald all ventured to the area to perform at the historical Rossonian Hotel, which still operates on the corner of Welton Street to this day.
“From the 20s to the 60s, Five Points was considered the Harlem of the West because of the jazz music, shops and shopkeepers that lined the Welton street corridor,” Gentry said.
The annual Juneteenth festival captures the essence of this jazzy era, despite the fact that it hosts an array of different music genres. More importantly, the celebration serves as a yearly opportunity for people to reflect on the progress Denver has made, despite being one of the most gentrified cities in the United States.
“For me, I think Juneteenth probably feels the same way that white people view Independence Day,” Nwachuku said.“I’ve celebrated Juneteenth my whole life, but when it became a state holiday last year, it felt so validating, like my home state was starting to care about the most important part of my history, too.”