As legend has it, Texas slaves did not learn of their freedom until Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay on June 19, 1865 a full two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln made his Emancipation Proclamation. June 19, or "Juneteenth," soon became an annual day of celebration in the Lone Star State.
In St. Louis the holiday has yet to take hold, but as Curtis Faulkner will tell you, it's not for lack of trying. From 1997 to 2001, Faulkner struggled to host a yearly Juneteenth jazz festival in the area. Unlike the similar, more successful events he organized in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, Faulkner claims the St. Louis festival was plagued both by public ignorance about Juneteenth and by a lack of corporate sponsorship.
"For African Americans this date is like the Fourth of July," says the 58-year-old Faulkner. "But just try telling that to a corporate sponsor like Anheuser-Busch. They're like, 'Yeah, right. And how much beer is that going to move?'"
Now, six years removed from his last Juneteenth festival, Faulkner plans to reinvigorate the project. Through his pale blue eyes, Faulkner sees a grand, multi-day celebration that he says will rival the famed New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in both size and popularity. He imagines hosting the party in the parking lot of Jamestown Mall in Florissant, thereby pumping life and money into a predominantly black neighborhood. He anticipates booking headline acts such as Roy Ayers, Lonnie Liston Smith, Freddy Cole and Erykah Badu.
Faulkner also envisions taxpayers paying for the bash and it won't come cheap. In March, State Representative Juanita Walton (a Democrat from north St. Louis county) introduced a bill that would provide an annual appropriation of $2 million from the state's general revenue to fund the Missouri Juneteenth Heritage & Jazz Festival and Memorial.
Critics of the bill of which there are many argue that such funding would be irresponsible, especially considering Faulkner's questionable past and outspoken rhetoric.
Faulkner, meanwhile, contends that the bill is being stalled simply because of race and politics, with the state's arts council controlled by an all-white board and Missouri's black legislators kowtowing to the established authority. Last year Faulkner shocked members of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus when he allegedly called several female legislators "bitches" for failing to sponsor an earlier proposal.
"That is categorically wrong and untrue," Faulkner says today. "That conversation occurred at 10:30 at night after a long session at the state capitol, and they weren't my words. Some male legislators inferred that the women were acting like 'bitches.'"
Faulkner is less reluctant to pull his punches when it comes to the Missouri Arts Council. "The fact of the matter," he says, "is they don't feel comfortable giving $2 million to a black arts group."
Beverly Strohmeyer, executive director of the arts council, did not return calls seeking comment.
In 2003 Faulkner helped usher in a state statute establishing June 19 as "Emancipation Day" in Missouri. The legislation allowed for state funds to support a Juneteenth memorial. Under the bill now proposed by Juanita Walton, the festival and memorial would receive $2 million annually or approximately 10 percent of the revenue the state takes in from an income tax on non-resident professional athletes and entertainers. Much of that tax money is currently allocated to the MAC, which this year is expected to receive $7.8 million in funds that it, in turn, will disperse as grants to hundreds of arts organizations across the state.
Faulkner contends that much of the so-called athlete-and-entertainment tax is funded by blacks. According to National Football League payrolls, he claims, black football players visiting Missouri to play the Kansas City Chiefs and the St. Louis Rams paid $12 million into the state coffers in 2005, or 51 percent of the entire tax paid by non-resident athletes and entertainers that year.
"You think these people would be happy knowing their money is going to support only white arts groups?" asks an indignant Faulkner, who notes that the Saint Louis Zoo, the Saint Louis Science Center, and other arts and cultural organizations receive millions in tax funding each year. "All I'm saying is what's good for the gander is also good for the goose."
In late March an analyst with the Missouri Department of Economic Development warned that the state would have little oversight over how the Juneteenth memorial spends the $2 million and labeled its funding proposal as setting a "dangerous precedent." In response to the warning, Faulkner left an indignant voicemail with Missouri Citizens for the Arts lobbyist Kyna Iman, whom he believes is attempting to sabotage the bill.
"The people who wanted to enslave Dred Scott probably said he was setting a 'dangerous precedent' too," Faulkner fumed in the phone message. "To not support this effort has to be one of the premier racial acts in the entire region."
A bemused Iman says she and the Missouri Arts Council agreed to assist Faulkner in getting funding but were under the impression the money would benefit a host of black arts groups. Later, when she read the bill proposed by Walton (HB 1126), Iman says she discovered that all of the money was to be allocated to the Juneteenth memorial, which currently lacks an oversight commission.
"Who is the Juneteenth Heritage & Jazz Festival Memorial anyway?" Iman asks. "Is it a registered nonprofit? Does it have a board of directors?"
State records show that Curtis Faulkner first incorporated in Missouri in 1997 under the name Ft. Worth Juneteenth Heritage & Jazz Festival, an organization he founded in Texas in 1988. A year after registering the festival in Missouri, the secretary of state's office pulled the organization's business license on the grounds that it failed to file an annual report.
In 2002 Faulkner got the festival reinstated as a nonprofit under the more generic name "Juneteenth Heritage & Jazz Festival." Two years later in 2004 the state again pulled the organization's business license for failing to file paperwork. On May 3 of this year, Faulkner once again filed documents to reinstate the organization. Since 1999 his Juneteenth festival has not raised the minimum $25,000 required to file tax records with the Internal Revenue Service.
Court records reveal Faulkner's festival has had financial troubles. In 1999 a landlord in the Central West End filed suit against Faulkner and the Juneteenth organization for back payment of rent. In 1998 famed St. Louis bluesman Bennie Smith, who passed away last year, sued Faulkner and his organization for breach of contract.
"We paid Bennie $350 upfront to play for the festival, but the day of the show it rained," explains Faulkner. "We canceled the concert, but Bennie wanted his other $350. You shouldn't get paid for not playing. Should you?"
As for the state pulling his business licenses, Faulkner blames miscommunication. His organization has moved addresses several times over the years, with notices from the secretary of state's office literally getting "lost in the mail." Today he operates the Juneteenth Heritage & Jazz Festival out of his home in Florissant.
With the Juneteenth bill stalled in committee earlier this month, Faulkner's friend and supporter the Reverend Ronald Myers of Mississippi penned a note to Governor Matt Blunt requesting an emergency meeting. As chairman of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, Myers questioned how a state commission recognizing the Holocaust has moved forward in the legislature while the Juneteenth bill remains at a standstill.
"Why has Juneteenth, a commemoration of the African-American holocaust from the legacy of slavery, not received the same support from the governor of Missouri?" wrote Myers.
The letter, which was copied to several legislators, has done little to assuage several black lawmakers still reeling from Faulkner's purported "bitches" comment. "I'm one person of color who can tell you that the Missouri Arts Council is doing an excellent job," says Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who represents University City in the Missouri House of Representatives.
Chappelle-Nadal refutes Faulkner's claim of racial bias within the arts council, and in 2005 conducted an audit in which she found MAC fulfilled 84 percent of the funding requests made by African-American and ethnic arts groups. By comparison the agency fulfilled 78 percent of grants requested from white groups, says Chappelle-Nadal.
"I think in general people want to support the Juneteenth concept," says State Representative Connie Johnson, the minority whip from St. Louis City. "But there remain questions about the person heading the effort. Is Mr. Faulkner part of the solution or part of the problem?"
As this article went to press, it seemed unlikely the Juneteenth bill would be taken up for a vote before the legislative session ended May 18. Faulkner, however, vows he'll take up the legislative fight again next year and says he's at work organizing a commission to oversee the $2 million.
"People have tried to make this all about me," he says. "They insinuate the money is all coming to me. I know I'll be scrutinized to the nth degree over this, but at the end of the day you have to look at whether the idea has merit. If it does, it's going to happen. And I believe it does."