For more than a decade, Camden has held one Juneteenth celebration, headed by a longtime activist and backed by the city.

Now, because of political tension and miscommunication, there will be two events: One Saturday at Farnham Park hosted by the city, and a second — also at Farnham but on June 30 — organized by Mangaliso Davis, who claims the city excluded him from planning sessions because of his criticisms of Camden’s Democratic Party machine. Davis over the years has advocated for improving the city’s schools and reducing poverty and crime rates.

The city says Davis did not attend planning meetings. Davis contends the city did not invite him to meetings. He began planning his own festival in March.

“It’s something you’ve been doing, and then suddenly you can’t do it,” Davis said of the city’s 2019 Juneteenth festival. “What’s that all about? Like I said, it’s politics, and it’s racism.”

In years past, Davis worked with Camden County or the city, along with a variety of sponsors, vendors, and community members, to coordinate the program. Juneteenth, an annual festival celebrated across the nation, recognizes the end of slavery in the United States.

For the last two years, Davis said, the city contributed nearly $3,000 annually, which helped finance the activities and performances.

Davis said Mayor Frank Moran told him this year that 2019’s festival would “be better." Davis then requested that the mayor’s office reach out to him with information about planning. That never happened, according to Davis.

“That’s not true,” said city spokesperson Vincent Basara.

He said the city did invite him to participate. Basara said the city began to plan without Davis only because he refused to attend meetings.

“That’s a lie,” Davis countered.

Mangaliso Davis, city activist, will hold a separate Juneteenth festival this year.
Colin Kerrigan / For The Inquirer
Mangaliso Davis, city activist, will hold a separate Juneteenth festival this year.

Members of groups such as the African American Heritage Advisory Board, the Camden County Historical Society, and City Council have assisted with the planning.

“Mayor Frank Moran has placed emphasis on celebrating all of the diverse cultures here in Camden,” Basara wrote in an email to The Inquirer. “We expect Saturday’s Juneteenth celebration to be even bigger than last year’s event.… It’s an excellent opportunity to highlight Camden’s amazing African American community.”

Davis and his cosponsors, which include the Camden branch of the NAACP, First Refuge Church, and the Unity Community Center, will continue to organize their event.

Davis said his nonprofit agency, the African American Commission, has for years been integral to the festival.

And despite their differences, Davis and the city seem to agree on at least one point: Confusion has fogged Juneteenth organizers’ understanding of the nonprofit’s role in planning the festival. Both Davis and the city parties acknowledge the festival’s organizers have struggled to differentiate between Davis’s nonprofit and the African American Advisory Board, which is associated directly with City Hall to raise awareness of African Americans’ contributions to Camden.

Davis said he has seen an outpouring of support for his Juneteenth celebration and criticism of the city’s Saturday event.

“This is the mayor’s way of taking our celebration and making it into an arts and crafts event,” the Rev. Levi Combs III wrote in a June 1 Facebook post. “This sacred day is about learning and giving back to our people and the heritage it employs. Until this event is planned and programmed for Us by Us, I can not and will not support this political desecration of our peoples celebration.”

Keith Benson, president of the Camden Education Association, said he personally does not view the rift between Davis and the city as race-related but added he understands why others may take that position.

“I choose to believe…,” he started to say. Benson then paused and said, “I hope that it’s just politics.”

Sheilah Greene, community liaison of the Camden County Historical Society, has been helping the city plan for the Juneteenth festival.

She said she has admired Davis for years, adding that the feud between the activist and the city is separate from what the festival is about: history.

“It keeps growing into something that it doesn’t have to be,” Greene said of the controversy. “Right now it feels like an unnecessary divide. We got enough problems going on in Camden. We don’t need this. We really don’t.”