Madera honors Juneteenth, Olympian during celebration
Wendy Alexander/The Madera Tribune
Family members of the late Lee Evans hold photos and proclamations they received during Saturday’s Juneteenth Day celebration at Courthouse Park. Evans, who was born in Madera won two gold medals at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City and passed away in Nigeria in May. From left are Ernest “Rocky” Richardson, Martha Garcia, Lenda Lisa, Rosemary Evans and Lucielle Evans.
When the subject of honoring a former Maderan who became an Olympic gold medalist and passed away in May, Madera City Councilwoman Anita Evans hatched the perfect plan.
Already in the works was a Juneteenth Celebration, which celebrates a date in 1865 when slaves in Galveston, Texas, learned they were free, in Madera. Evans decided to add to that celebration to honor two-time Olympic gold medalist Lee Evans (no relation), who was born in Madera.
“Slaves in Galveston Texas first learned of their freedom on June 19, 1865, two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation,” Madera Mayor Santos Garcia read from a proclamation to honor June 19, 2021 as Juneteenth Day. “Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration about the end of slavery in the United States. Juneteenth not only commemorates African American freedom, but also emphasizes education, self-improvement and the achievements of the African-American community.”
So fitting was it to honor Evans, who was a big voice on social justice.
“It wasn’t that Lee Evans established himself as a premier track athlete in the nation,” California Senator Jim Costa said. “What Lee Evans was was a drum major for justice in our own community. He was on the cutting edge trying to ensure justice for everyone. It was a long journey.”
After moving the celebration from 3 p.m. to 9 a.m. on Saturday, Anita Evans opened the Junteenth Day celebration at Courthouse Park in front of the Madera County Courthouse Museum with a moment of silence.
“Moment of silence for the military and Juneteenth,” Evans said. “And also for those who died in battle. We would ask each and every one of you to remember the solders who fought in the war and were not recognized. We stand here now to salute this beautiful flag. We are one nation under God.”
Madera running historian Mike Lennemann, who held the blocks for his idol, Lee Evans, talked about the impact Evans made on him and the nation.
“When I was a teenager in the 1960s, I ran track at East Bakersfield High School and I was a huge fan,” Lennemann said. “Lee Evans was my idol. I ran the 440 even though I wasn’t good at it. I ran the mile relay and imagined I was Lee Evans leading his team to victory. It didn’t always happen that way, but it was a great motivation for me. I remember in 1970, I got the volunteer at the National Championship track meet at Bakersfield College and I was going to be a freshman there. I was on the hurdle crew, but my biggest honor was I got to carry the blocks for Lee Evans to the starting line. For me, that was a huge thrill.”
Lennemann gave a brief biography of Evans. He was born in Madera in1947 and moved to Fresno at four.
“He worked with his brothers and sisters in the fields harvesting grapes and picking cotton,” Lennemann said. “He went to Central High School. When he was a sophomore, the family moved to San Jose.”
Evans earned an athletic scholarship to San Jose State, known then as “Speed City.”
“In 1966 as a freshman, he won his first national championship in the 440 yard dash,” Lennemann said. “He achieved his first world record as a member of the 4X400 meter relay. He won the national 440 championship four years in a row, and again in 1972. His only defeat in college was to his teammate Tommie Smith of Lemoore.”
Evans teamed with Smith to set a world record in the 4X400 meter relay in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and later set another world record in the 400 meter run. Both records lasted for more than 20 years.
“His relay team sought to raise awareness of racial equality during a year of social unrest,” Lennemann said. “Lee Evans was instrumental was helping organize the Olympic Project for Human Rights. This included teammates Tommie Smith and John Carlos. The project started to draw attention to housing inequalities for black students, but it grew into a movement to challenge the unjust leadership of the Olympic Games.”
Evans was inducted into the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1983. He passed away on May 19 from complications of a stroke in Nigeria.
“His legacy of contribution to the sports and struggle for social justice will live on forever,” Lennemann said.
Mayor Garcia provided a proclamation to honor both Evans and Juneteenth Day.
“Magdalena Gomez was the one that alerted me about Lee Evans,” he said. “Today is a day to honor Opal Lee. At 94, she led the charge to get the United States to acknowledge as a federally-recognized holiday.”
Senator Costa acknowledged the athletic and social accolades of Evans and also of the celebration of Juneteenth Day.
“I’m honored to have voted to make Juneteenth Day and National Holiday,” he said. “We celebrate Juneteenth Day for ALL Americans.
“Lee Evans went above and beyond. He took his athletic promise to stand for social justice. That’s why we celebrate him. He stood out and took his God-given talent and used it for the greater good.”
In additions to proclamations to the Evans family and to Evans for the Juneteenth Day celebrations from Senator Anna Caballero’s office and Assemblyman Frank Bigelow’s office, Leticia Gonzalez represented the Madera County Supervisors with proclamations to the family and about Juneteenth Day.
“Today is not only a day to celebrate freedom, but it’s also a day to reflect on our history and look into our future,” she said. “I challenge everyone to challenge yourselves and be an agent of change. We’ve come a long way and we have a long way to go. We proclaim Juneteenth National Freedom day in Madera County and call upon all Madera County residents to celebrate and acknowledge the milestone towards achieving the ideal that All men are created equal.”