After a few deep breaths and a round of encouragement, Amaya Murphy, Sentha Wright and Oumie Hydara stepped onto a small stage Saturday afternoon, each wearing colorful and boldly patterned African wear.
Loud cheers erupted from family, friends and community members seated in rows of folding chairs as the three contestants performed a dance number to kick off Anchorage’s Miss Juneteenth Pageant.
Although the competition was small, it was a part of something much bigger: a continued effort to bring fresh life to Anchorage’s commemoration of Juneteenth, the national holiday celebrating the end of slavery in the United States.
The pageant was part of a weekendlong celebration as Juneteenth festivities returned to the Delaney Park Strip in Anchorage, drawing hundreds of attendees in addition to speakers, performers and vendors.
“You can have all of the initiative to make a difference in your community, but if nobody is brave enough to show up, then it means nothing,” said Tamara Brown, who organized the pageant. “It’s bone chilling ... there’s no words to describe that feeling for (the contestants).”
The Miss Juneteenth Pageant comes with the usual trappings of sashes and crowns, bouquets, and evening gown and talent competitions — but it emphasizes individuality and empowerment for young Black girls.
Other pageants around the nation are judged based on Eurocentric values, Brown said. Pageant leaders encouraged the usage of African-American Vernacular English and highlighted the importance for contestants to show their Blackness, culture and African heritage.
“It was really important for me to make that a requisite,” Brown said. “It’s important for our girls to break out of what they feel like people want to see from them. ... There’s a way to be Black and be proud of who you are in a professional setting just like there is with any other culture.”
During the talent portion, Hydara, 17, performed a poem she wrote. Her favorite lines of the poem, “I fly free in a world that doesn’t want me and I, too, run deep in the shadows at night,” symbolized the continued hardships Black people face and Harriet Tubman’s work in the Underground Railroad.
“Everything just came together so beautifully,” she said. “I’m so proud to be a part of this. I’m proud to be Black, African American.”
Juneteenth’s origins date back to June 19, 1865, when U.S. Gen. Gordon Granger announced in Galveston, Texas, that enslaved people in the state were free under an executive proclamation. (News of the Emancipation Proclamation took more than two years to arrive.) Juneteenth became a federal holiday last year after President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law.
Although Juneteenth was only recently acknowledged on a federal level, people in Anchorage have been celebrating it on and off since the 1980s.
Organizers say this year’s celebration represents a return to the prestigious celebrations of past years with help from elders in the community.
“It’s growing and it’s on track to start getting back on track to where it used to be,” said Juneteenth Anchorage president Jasmin Smith. “It’s one step closer to our roots.”
Smith described the holiday as a family reunion and said celebrations often focus on children, too.
During a break in the pageant, people danced to “Electric Boogie (The Electric Slide).” Nearby, others tried on clothing from RosAfrique while hair, nail and makeup demonstrations were held at different booths.
As the pageant commenced, people returned to the stage and cheered on Murphy, Wright and Hydara.
The Miss Juneteenth Pageant helps amplify the voices of Anchorage’s younger generations. Although it’s been around for decades, the pageant has gained momentum with the recent federal recognition of Juneteenth, Brown said. This will be the first year they send a contestant to the national competition.
Shayne Wright, Brown and Smith have been working hard to build up and increase visibility of the pageant. The trio hopes its renewal will give young Black girls a safe space to celebrate their identity and showcase their African heritage, something the pageant organizers didn’t always have a chance to do when they were growing up.
“I feel that young Black girls are often put into a box and they don’t have much room to move around...,” contestant Hydara said. “So I think the community’s support of this in general ... I think that’s really great and I just want it to become more prominent in our community.”
Wright, 16, was anxious but excited as she prepared for the pageant in a small library at First Presbyterian Church across from the Park Strip.
She shimmied her shoulders to Kirk Richmond’s “But I Miss You” as Myahna Cash penciled in her eyebrows, saying words of encouragement to calm Wright’s nerves.
“Melanin be poppin’!” Cash said as she mixed foundations to match Wright’s skin tone.
This year’s pageant was the first pageant any of the girls have competed in, and pride spilled from Brown, the pageant director, as she cheered for them offstage.
“I mean, this right now, I only see the stuff on TV,” said contestant Murphy, 14. “All the preparation, it’s really kind of cool to me.”
Murphy performed a dance routine to Beyoncé's “Freedom” during the pageant’s talent portion and was supported from the sidelines by Wright and Hydara.
“I thought it was gonna be a thing where we were all gonna hate each other,” Wright said. “But we all love each other dearly. It’s just fun with friends that I will have forever now.”
Hydara was crowned Anchorage’s Miss Juneteenth pageant winner. In addition, she received a $500 scholarship and placed first in the essay portion for her writing on the prompt: “What does being African American mean to you?” Murphy was the runner-up and was awarded first place in the online photo contest.
The citywide Juneteenth celebration continues Sunday, starting at 1 p.m. on the Park Strip.