In the historical scope, it makes sense why protracted conflict marred this city. It is less obvious what a Juneteenth celebration would mean for Portland. The city does not have Texas’ history with enslaved people. It does not have the cultural history of the American South. And it is not a central part of the Great Migration story of Black history.
The Portland rodeo is a celebration trying to fasten Juneteenth’s specific story of freedom from slavery to universal themes of place, home and equality. Now that Juneteenth is a federal holiday, communities across the country are doing the same complicated dance. This nation still has not fully acknowledged its national debt to slavery. How can it find a unifying national message around Black freedom without acknowledging white accommodation of slavery? A rodeo is as good a way to explore those tensions as any other. Like a rider wrestling a bull beneath bright lights, reconciling national narratives is not a pastime for the faint of heart.
Like every story about enslavement and the American West, you cannot talk about Juneteenth in Portland without talking about land. “Ivan very intentionally had the rodeo here at the Expo Center,” Oregon State Senator Lew Frederick said. The Expo Center is near Vanport, a formerly Black working-class enclave built around the shipping industry in the 1940s. A massive storm, followed by flooding, wiped Vanport off the map in 1948. Frederick says there remains a notion among Black Portlanders that the flooding was a convenient excuse for displacing the city’s thriving Black enclave.
Having the rodeo near Vanport is a way of saying that this is an event for you, for us. And that we remember. For State Senator Frederick, Juneteenth is not only about commemorating news of freedom for Galveston’s enslaved people. It is also about remembering in places where a lot of effort has been made to forget. “That’s what Juneteenth is managing, to tell the history that we have not been told. So it can be told in an Oregonian way.”
Black Cowboys have been around since long before the cattle-driving era, but sadly pop culture has diminished their myth and legend. These folks deserve every right to commemorate Juneteenth and reclaim their much deserved piece of Western Heritage. Bringing people together to acknowledging and reconcile history over song, pageantry and bucking horses sounds like a superb idea. I know where I wanna be next Juneteenth. I’ll see y’all in Portland.