Ogden joined cities across the country this weekend playing host to the state's largest black celebration and recognition of Juneteenth — a holiday marking the abolition of slavery in the U.S.

The gathering, held in the downtown Ogden Amphitheatre, is in its 19th year, and its current rendition is sponsored by the Project Success Coalition — a 23-year-old Ogden group that provides a year-round education outreach program for students in kindergarten-seventh grade. Project director Betty Sawyer said the event has grown steadily since its start and was hoping to exceed last year's 15,000-plus attendees. Sawyer said the event, which began Thursday and runs through today, was off to a great start.

"We had good attendance and a great discussion for our kickoff on Thursday ... a screening of the documentary film 'The Wisdom Of Our Years' and a fantastic night of jazz on Friday,' Sawyer said. "Today we had over 40 vendors ... food, and a whole afternoon and evening of music."

Saturday's slate of musical entertainment featured local and out-of-town acts including the Utah Mass Choir, under the direction of Norris Gardner, and national recording artist Darwin Hobbs. The documentary shown Thursday, "The Wisdom Of Our Years," is a 40-minute history of black Utahns, created by the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.

Sawyer said education and outreach efforts have long been an essential part of the yearly gathering. To this end, a wide variety of health advocacy, family support and education groups were well represented Saturday. Mercy Jacobo and Jenny Jorgensen were tending an information booth for Weber Human Services. They were distributing pamphlets and answering questions on a new anti-violence, anti-substance abuse campaign. Jacobo said the focus of their efforts is provide kids with the tools to make good decisions.

"We have nine to 10 specialists who visit schools and community groups and run a three-week program," Jacobo said. "The program helps teach kids about self-esteem, refusal skills and coping skills ... the things they need to stay strong." Nickee Palacios represented the Weber-Morgan Health Department at their information booth touting "Future Method" — a school-based abstinence curriculum that promotes decision-making skills, goal making and pregnancy prevention. Palacios said that encouraging teens to opt for abstinence is made easier when it's put in the context of achieving future goals.

"When we help students see how a pregnancy can really alter their chances for getting where they want in life ... it changes a lot ... changes how they look at things," Palacios said. The approach makes parents an integral part of that planning and goal-setting. Literature on the program indicated that teenage pregnancy is the No. 1 indicator of future poverty.

Some attendees on Saturday were just there to enjoy the music, eat and relax in the shade. Stuart Michaels and his 8-year-old son, Sean, were sharing a catfish dinner and a slice of sweet-potato pie under a tree by the stage. Michaels said they'd been coming to the Juneteenth gathering for "at least the last three years" and loved the energy of the event. "It's just a great reason to get together ... to bring families together and remember the past," Michaels said. "And remember it's not just African-Americans' past, but everybody's past."

The Ogden Juneteenth celebration runs through Sunday. Information can be found on the Project Success Coalition's Web site at www.projectsuccessinc.org.

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