Want to flex your style and skills? Look no further than Utah’s Juneteenth Braid Battle
From the moment she got up Sunday morning, Sunshine Johnson was preparing to win the Crowns Braid Battle at the Utah Juneteenth Festival — starting with what she said she had for breakfast.
“Hard work and determination,” Johnson said, completely serious. “I woke up early and I didn't get to eat because I was up working hard for this.”
The Freedom and Heritage Festival in Ogden has commemorated Juneteenth for more than 30 years, but this is the first celebration since the Legislature voted to make it a state holiday. The day marks when the last enslaved African Americans were freed in Texas.
Johnson and the other braiders, as well as more than a dozen barbers, set up their supplies at the Ogden amphitheater and got to work. Outside of their fierce concentration, music played over the speakers and festival-goers listened for their raffle ticket numbers to be called. The braiders had three hours to compete for prize money, bragging rights and a hefty, commemorative championship belt.
Johnson used her younger sister as a model, just like she has for more than two decades.
“If she just said I've been doing it for 24 years and I can't win, second place is a hard fail,” Johnson said.
Schqueta Morning, one of the judges for the braiding competition, has owned the Hair Haven salon and beauty supply store in Riverdale for more than 20 years. The shop’s main focus is serving Black clients, but Morning said everyone is welcome.
For her, hair is powerful because it can change the way you see yourself.
“Hair makes you feel good. It makes you look good,” Morning said. “If I'm having a bad day, when my hair's done, it lifts me up and makes me feel important.”
In about two hours, Johnson wove the word “Juneteenth” into her sister’s hair and created a crown braid with extensions and jewels.
In the end, she didn’t take first place. But Meltia Hickman, Johnson’s sister and model, said the experience was always about more than the competition.
“It's not the simple fact that it's an important thing to showcase,” Hickman said. “It’s the fact that it is culture. It's community coming together. It's people showing their different talents and also bringing in clientele for them. This is an opportunity for our community as a whole to grow.”
Johnson’s not sure if she’ll participate again next year, though if she does, she said she’ll make sure she’s ready.
Even though she went home without that first-place prize, she said it was worth it because she was able to educate people about her Black culture.
“Especially in Utah, because our level of diversity isn't what other places are,” she said. “So if I helped share anything, if anybody came up to my sister and said, ‘I love your hair, what is this?’ I love that.”