After a two-year hiatus, the Austin community will see the return of the Juneteenth Festival, scheduled over a five-day span (June 16-21) and sponsored by the Westside Historical Society (WHS), the Chicago Park District and the Westside Arts Council.

It is the first Juneteenth celebration on the West Side since 2008 and only the fifth festival commemorating the emancipation holiday here since 2003.

Festivities are planned across the six square blocks of Garfield Park, 100 S. Central Park Ave., and will feature close to 300 vendors from around the country. The elaborate event will include an art gallery, the national Eyes Wide Open exhibit, which pays tribute to the fallen soldiers of the Iraq War, and free health clinics.

There will also be a parade on the June 18, which will run from Madison and California to the festival site. 

“Austin is the largest predominantly African-American community in Chicago, but far too often too many of the negatives get emphasized,” said Rickie Brown, chairman of the Westside Historical Society and planner of the event.

“We hear about crime, drop-out rates, and prisoner re-entry, but we rarely have the chance to share many unifying moments of positivity across Austin. That’s what this event is about.”

Brown is a lifelong resident of Austin and has worked with several nonprofit, community outreach organizations, including Bethel New Life and South Austin Coalition Community Council.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in the planning of the festival, which began in November 2010, has been securing the funding to execute it on the scale the organizers have envisioned.

“We’ve  received a lot of help from our private donors as well as the Chicago Park District in financing the event,” said Ronald Smith, co-chairman of WHS.

“And some of our area political figures, such as [28th Ward Alderman] Jason Ervin, [29th Ward Alderman] Deborah Graham and [37th Ward Alderman] Emma Mitts, have offered letters of support regarding the event.”

While financing the festival continues to be the biggest challenge, Smith is hopeful it will come together.

“Even if it means scaling back in certain areas, plans for the fest will not change,” Smith said.

Prior to planning this year’s event, WHS made arrangements with the park district to ensure that the Juneteenth festival will be held every June until 2015, so there will be no hiatus for the foreseeable future.

Although the event is free for all visitors, Smith distributed tickets to the event to remind Westsiders and Southsiders about the festival. He has distributed close to 50,000 tickets already and says he expects the turnout to be roughly half that number.

“We’re hoping for a pretty strong showing,” Smith said. “I would say between 18,000 to 25,000 would be a solid benchmark. We want to make this an annual event that Westsiders can look forward to every summer.”

For more information about becoming a vendor or attending the festival, contact www.juneteenth2011.com.