Lifelong Lansing resident and Juneteenth Celebration chairperson brings history to new generations
In searching for someone who embodies the spirit of Lansing, one would have to look no further than Marilyn Plummer. A lifelong resident and community outreach coordinator for Mayor Andy Schor’s office, she has played a major role in the education and celebration of African American history throughout her career. As the Lansing Juneteenth Celebration chairperson and lead staff to the Paving the Way, I-496 research and documentation project, Plummer continues to honor history right in her hometown.
Plummer said she has been inspired by the city’s recent growth and evolution. “I’m excited about the city,” she said. “I can appreciate the past and history. There are so many people here, some who actually grew up here and those who migrated here. I like to hear the stories of why people chose to come to Lansing.”
Plummer joked that she didn’t have a choice about where she grew up, but she knows she would have ended up right here. She attended Lansing schools and enjoyed spending much of her time outdoors.
“What I like about the city are our city parks,” she said. “I grew up spending a lot of time in them. They have a lot to offer. I think the city puts an emphasis on parks and recreation activities.”
Much her of family still lives in the city, and it is the city’s abundance of diverse activities that Plummer sees as one of its best attributes.
“Lansing is a small-town atmosphere with just enough activity to keep you inspired,” she said. “There are cultural experiences. You don’t have to go far to have an enjoyable time with your family.”
Plummer seeks out events in the city. She said some of her favorite things are the family friendly events held throughout the summer, including musical festivals and holiday celebrations.
“If it’s happening here in Lansing, I want to be a part of it,” she said, adding that she relies on the Arts Council of Greater Lansing’s annual brochure to learn about special events and activities. “I like being a part of that celebration or experience.”
As an original committee member for the Lansing Juneteenth Celebration and its current chairperson, Plummer has played a significant part of that community experience for over 25 years.
“The founding member of the Juneteenth Celebration (Gordon Haskins) was a church member of mine, and he was from Texas where it originated,” she said. “Juneteenth was second nature to him; it was like the Fourth of July. For African Americans, Juneteenth is our expression of freedom. It represents a culture, a history and a celebration.”
Fourteen years ago, Plummer played an integral role in having Juneteenth recognized as a state holiday in Michigan. In June 2005, then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed legislation to officially designate the third Saturday in June as Juneteenth National Freedom Day in the state. At that time, Michigan became the 18th state to do so.
In her newest role as lead staff for the Paving the Way, I-496 research and documentation project, announced by Schor in November 2018, Plummer will continue to help educate the community about Lansing’s past. Thanks to a $39,400 grant from the National Parks Service, the city of Lansing will be able to share stories of how the construction of I-496 impacted the city’s African American community in the 1960s.
“This project explores the impact the I-496 interstate had on Lansing’s vibrant African American westside community during the height of the civil rights movement,” Plummer explained in her opinion piece for the Lansing State Journal in February. “The personal stories of Lansing’s African American community will be featured through oral histories that will be documented for the final project.”
While thousands of drivers use I-496 each day, many are unaware of the over 800 homes and businesses that were demolished in order to make room for the expressway. But Plummer said the construction of I-496 also helped lead to the desegregation of the city.
“That’s a separate part of the story, but that was my early childhood in Lansing,” said Plummer. “So, I’ve been able to benefit, but people like my parents and those who are older who had to live through it is another story.”
Plummer sees the progress her hometown has experienced over the years as working in tandem with the lessons of Juneteenth.
“For the city of Lansing, like any other city in America, we’ve had some growing issues,” she said. “We’ve all had to learn about becoming a society that is more open-minded and accepting of all people. I think that’s the symbolism of Juneteenth. It’s a rich past of history that shows the path of growth for African American people who have achieved many things … and being able to be a part of this fast-paced, growing society.”
History of Juneteenth and the Lansing Juneteenth Celebration
The term “Juneteenth” dates back to 1865, commemorating the date that marked the end of slavery in the United States. While President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became official at the beginning of 1863, and Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered in April 1865, news of the Civil War ending didn’t travel to Texas immediately. Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take command the following month, sharing the news that all slaves were free. That day, June 19, 1865, marked the emancipation for the slaves in Texas.
The 26th annual Lansing Juneteenth Celebration will be held June 13-15, with the first day of events kicking off at Lansing City Hall. Friday night’s Freedom Festival continues the celebrations, which conclude Saturday with the African American Parade and festival activities in Lansing’s St. Joseph Park. The Lansing Juneteenth Committee anticipates nearly 4,500 people will attend and participate in the three-day event.
The Lansing Juneteenth Celebration helps provide an impactful service for the community with its annual health fair. Held during the Saturday events, the health fair gives visitors an opportunity to receive health and wellness information from local nonprofit organizations.
Students from sixth through 12th grade are also invited to take part in the Juneteenth Celebration through its annual essay contest and scholarship program, presented in partnership with Olivet College and the Lansing State Journal.
According to founding committee member and Juneteenth Education Committee Chairperson Debra Plummer, the essay prompts are reviewed annually and change every few years “based upon what the subcommittee feels would bring a more in-depth understanding of the students’ knowledge of Juneteenth and for them to be able to share what they know and focus also on how this freedom affects them.”
In addition to monetary awards, including scholarships from Olivet College for the top two winners in the 11-12th grade category, winners are acknowledged at the Juneteenth Opening Celebration and participate in the African American Parade.