Like any North Carolina barbecue connoisseur, Nelson Lee has a strong opinion on the eastern versus western-style debate.
“Eastern,” he says without hesitation, raising his voice to be heard above the steady whir of the food trucks. The chef’s handiwork is laid out in trays before him, the tantalizing scents of smoke and vinegar mingling in the air. Lee describes his culinary technique, which won over the panel of judges at the Inaugural Juneteenth BBQ Cook-Off at Durham’s 17th annual Juneteenth Celebration on June 18 and 19.
“I don’t do the heavy sauce on my barbecue,” he explains. “I mainly put vinegar, salt, pepper and that’s mainly—and red pepper. That’s mainly what I mix in my barbecue.”
Lee and his company, SSS Catering (“SSS” stands for “Simply Southern Soulful,” he says), will represent Durham at the National Juneteenth BBQ competition this October in Galveston, Texas. That’s where more than 250,000 enslaved African-Americans learned of their freedom on June 19, 1865.
Across the parking lot at the Durham Bottling Co., the rhythmic beats of R&B music pulsed through the speakers on center stage. Stands featured local Black-owned businesses selling cigars, calendars, T-shirts and traditional African clothing in vibrant hues of magenta, turquoise and neon green.
One stand showcased an array of children’s books featuring prominent African-Americans, both historical and contemporary: Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass shared shelves with Barack Obama and Kamala Harris. Lorenzo Harris, a retired serviceman and teacher, and his wife Gloria, founded Oni’s Reading Rainbow, a mobile bookstore, after sensing a lack of representation in their daughter Oni’s K-12 curriculum. The couple’s mission is to expose Black youth to “things that they don’t get in their normal classrooms.”
“They can come to places like this, like what my wife created, and learn something about themselves that they didn’t know,” said Harris.
Durham-born R&B artist Ciana Parker, who performed her original songs on Sunday under the stage name 7even, said the holiday keeps Black history and culture alive.“I don’t want us to be forgotten,” she said after singing to an enthusiastic crowd, eyes still shining from the rush of the performance.
“We can be overlooked a lot because of the complaints that we make, and how strongly we feel about it, and our passion can look like anger,” Parker said. “So I’m glad that they have things like this every year, where everybody can just come together, eat, and listen to some music, you know, relax.”
Though most attendees were African-American, not all were. As dinnertime approached, Jennifer Boren and her wife and son stood waiting outside the Hot Diggity Dog food truck in a line that stretched across the gravel parking lot. “We got a big hot dog eater over here,” she said with a laugh, gesturing to her son. Outside the truck, a bright yellow sign promised to donate 10% of proceeds to families without life insurance.
The three had traveled from Zebulon, North Carolina— nearly an hour away— to celebrate Juneteenth in Durham.
“We came here to support local businesses because in our family, being in an intersectional type of relationship— I am Latina, in the LGBTQIA+ community being a lesbian, and we’re also raising a child— we know the importance of Black culture and Black history,” said Boren.
“We are educating our son that it’s important to not only give back to our community, but support the local vendors as well. So we were here for the good food, the positive vibes and of course getting the beautiful, awesome merchandise that they have here as well,” she said, dangling a handcrafted woven fan from her hand.
As the sun set over the festival, families and groups of friends sat together in scattered patches of shade enjoying hot dogs, smoked pork shoulder, and pastel-toned fruit smoothies in enormous glasses.
Juneteenth celebrations weren’t always a part of Durham tradition. Phyllis Coley, the CEO of Spectacular Magazine, initiated the festivities in 2004 as a means to uplift the Black community, said her son Lawrence Davis III, the magazine’s president.
“Slavery was put there to separate us, and so we could bring the community together, you know, on a topic that was meant to split apart,” Davis said. “At the end of the day, I think that Juneteenth is just— I feel like it’s us coming together with America.”
“Just being able to bring the community together over something that was so controversial— it’s beautiful to me.”
Above (from top): Durham’s Juneteenth Festival featured award-winning barbecue chef Nelson Lee, R&B singer Ciana Parker and a variety of good eats; Photos by Ana Young — The 9th Street Journal