The Making of a Juneteenth Picnic in Santa Fe

The best picnics have a few things in common: great food, excellent company, and hopefully, a lot of sunshine. A Santa Fe Juneteenth picnic celebration in advance of the year’s festivities had all of that, proving that sometimes the great outdoors is very happy to spend some quality time indoors.

A group of Juneteenth event planners gather in a white room, plates in hand while enjoying picnic food.

A Juneteenth gathering at Aaron Payne Gallery on Lena Street. Cuisine from Juicy Foods 505 based on recipes by Bryant Terry.

Planning Santa Fe’s Juneteenth Picnic

African fabrics adorned a long table, platters of food nestled between the folds. Mason jars filled with crimson-hued tea, caught the light from a sunny day. Spinach salad dotted with blackened chickpeasa platter of oven-roasted carrots topped with generous dollops of carrot-top-walnut pestocharred red cabbage, smoky and sweet and ever so slightly spicy, thanks to a drizzle of tomato relish. All vegan dishes, created by local Chef Damian Herrera and Amy Herrera of Juicy Foods 505, from recipes by Bryant Terry, food writer, chef, food justice advocate, and founder and editor-in-chief of 4 Color Books.

It had the makings of a picnic, albeit indoors in an art-filled space. The occasion? A get-together of board members of the Santa Fe Soul Festival along with passionate supporters, in advance of their annual Juneteenth community picnic.

A wood cutting board with carrots sits to the left of a basket with charred red cabbage as a part of a Juneteenth picnic spread.

Oven-Roasted Carrots with a Carrot Top-Walnut Pesto sits to the left of Charred Red Cabbage with Spiced Tomato Relish. Both recipes are by Bryant Terry.

An Exchange of Love for Each Other and Artwork

Guests chatted as they ate, taking in the artwork––much of it by African and African American artists––on show at party host Aaron Payne’s eponymous gallery on Lena Street. Payne is also a SFSF board member. The group has hosted Juneteenth (a portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth”) celebrations since 2020, a year before the federal government declared it a national holiday to commemorate that date in 1865 when the Emancipation Proclamation at last went into effect in Texas.

The annual community picnic, co-sponsored with the First Presbyterian Church, is a free event open to the public and held on the lawn outside the federal courthouse. It’s one of the annual fixtures on the group’s calendar and a way to bring together different parts of Santa Fe, says Payne.

Aaron Payne stands in front of a dotted photo in a suit jacket and white shirt.

Host Aaron Payne stands in front of a piece of artwork in his gallery.

Creating a Space for Expression

And it’s that idea of celebrating community and cultures that inspired Madeleine Wright, chair of SFSF, to create the organization in the first place. In addition to the annual community picnic, they throw a packed gospel concert at the end of August. Money raised from the concert goes back into community events such as this year’s master dance, song and percussion classes with Fua Dia Congo of Oakland, CA at the New Mexico School for the Arts; lectures at the Mandela International Magnet School; and tickets for students from the National Dance Institute in Santa Fe to attend dance performances at the Lensic.

“We can make things happen,” says Wright simply, of the way they use the money raised. It’s an incredible opportunity for students to learn from the best artists in the business, while sharing African American culture. “I think it’s great to have an event––whether it’s the picnic or the drum lessons or the concert––where you see a sizable group of African Americans together enjoying themselves and celebrating their own culture, because that’s not something you get to see,” Payne says.

Various people grab food that's been spread around a wooden table with many colors of scarves decorated throughout.

The group fills their plates with the picnic spread.

Building a Community Atmosphere

There was a joyousness at the gathering, a coming together of people who share a common mission. Perhaps not surprising when you consider what SFSF does, whether it’s bringing people together for the Juneteenth picnic, the gospel concert, or education programs that make a difference in the lives of local young people. Wright sums it up best when she says, “You can give and receive benefits you have only dreamed of.”

Three glasses of red Juneteenth drinks featuring lemon wedges on the rim sit to the right of a pineapple in front of a yellow background.

Juneteenth tradition requires a red drink to be served with the meal.

Juneteenth and Gospel in Santa Fe

This year’s Juneteenth picnic takes place at 10:00 a.m. in Federal Park on the Grant Street side of the main post office. In case of rain, it will move to Pope Hall at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Fe.

The gospel concert takes place on the last Sunday in August (8/25) at St. Francis Auditorium.

Madeleine who runs that Juneteenth picnic sits on a wooden bench in front of a painting.

Madeleine Wright sits in front of a painting in Aaron Payne’s gallery.

Let’s Dance with Madeleine Wright, Chair of the Santa Fe Soul Festival

It was 2011 and Madeleine Wright was at a wedding in Bamako, Mali in West Africa. Wright couldn’t help but join local women who were dancing. What she didn’t expect was to be draped with a white shawl, denoting that she was the best dancer on the floor. “For me, this was a lifetime achievement award,” she says.

She might have been surprised, but no one who knows her would be. Wright has been a passionate supporter of African dance for decades, learning first and then sharing her love with others. Wright, born and raised in Detroit, studied at Wayne State University, went on to get a graduate degree and PhD with a concentration in guidance and counseling from the University of Michigan, and was a professor.

A painting with a yellow background featuring two young Black girls for Juneteenth.

Omofemi’s Me and You. (2021) on display at Aaron Payne Fine Art.

Dancing in Illinois

It was 1976 when her husband was stationed at Scott Airforce Base in Illinois, that Wright discovered African dance. The base is 18 miles from East St. Louis where Katherine Dunham’s dance company was in residence at Southern Illinois University’s Performing Arts Training Center. Dunham, a world-renowned dancer, choreographer, anthropologist, and activist, could have chosen any city in the world to work, but thankfully for Wright, she chose East St. Louis.

Wright took gruelling two-hour long classes, three to four times a week under the expert tutelage of Archie Savage, Dunham’s dance partner, who had been in 27 films and five Broadway plays. “And I was really bad,” she laughs. “But it didn’t matter.”

Various Juneteenth planners grab picnic food that's been spread around a wooden table with many colors of scarves decorated throughout.

Madeleine gets in line to fill her plate with the picnic spread at the gathering.

Sharing the World of African Dance

By the time she moved to Houston in 1978, not only was she an accomplished dancer but also committed to sharing her love of African dance with others. While working at Houston Community College, she collaborated with Deborah Quanaim of the dance department, raised money, and brought Savage to Houston to teach a two-week long workshop. The African Dance Society was born, and over the years brought musicians, choreographers, and dancers from leading companies such as Alvin Ailey to share their talents with students.

Today, living in Santa Fe and officially retired (“Retirement is overrated,” she laughs.), Wright is not only Chair of Santa Fe Soul Festival but also a board member of New Mexico School for the Arts. And dance remains a fundamental part of her life and work. “Dance and diversity go together,” she says. The African dance community––whether here in Santa Fe, back in Houston or East St. Louis––is diverse, she says. “We don’t care what color you are … we’re glad you’re here.”

Try the Gatherings’ Recipes

Roasted Sweet Plantains, Pecan, & Millet Salad

A brown bowl of a grain millet salad sits on top of a traditional cloth on a blue table as a spoon sits inside the grain bowl.

Spinach Salad with Blackened Chickpeas

A big brown bowl holds a Spinach Salad with Blackened Chickpeas, banana peppers, and dressing with two wooden servers in the bowl as well, all against a blue tablecloth.

Oven-Roasted Carrots with Carrot Top-Walnut Pesto

A wooden cutting board holds a line of oven-roasted sliced carrots with a walnut pesto lined down the center of the carrots.

Charred Red Cabbage with Spiced Tomato Relish

A basket platter holds a variety of charred red cabbage as a woman uses utensils to serve the dish.

Story and Styling by Julia Platt Leonard / Recipes by Bryant Terry / Food Prepared by Juicy Foods 505 / Photography by Tira Howard 

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