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Want to flex your style and skills? Look no further than Utah’s Juneteenth Braid Battle

Braid Battle, Utah Juneteenth Festival, Meltia Hickman, June 19, 2022
Emily Means
/
KUER
Meltia Hickman holds up a mirror to admire the handiwork of her sister Sunshine Johnson after she wove a crown braid onto Hickman's head.

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.

Braid Battle, Utah Juneteenth Festival, the champ belt, June 19, 2022
Emily Means
/
KUER
The winner of the braid battle gets prize money and a championship belt, June 19, 2022. On the stage behind the braiders, barbers faced off in their own competition.

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.

Braid Battle, Utah Juneteenth Festival, Schqueta Morning, June 19, 2022
Emily Means
/
KUER
Schqueta Morning, a longtime salon owner, was excited to judge the braiding competition, June 19, 2022. “It’s an art,” she said of the Braid Battle. “It’s creativity.”

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.

Braid Battle, Utah Juneteenth Festival, "Juneteenth braid", June 19, 2022
Courtesy Sunshine Johnson

“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.

Braid Battle, Utah Juneteenth Festival, sisters Meltia Hickman and Sunshine Johnson, June 19, 2022
Emily Means
/
KUER
Sisters Meltia Hickman, seated, and Sunshine Johnson share a laugh during the Crowns Braid Battle at the Utah Juneteenth Festival, June 19, 2022. It was Johnson’s first time participating in the competition after some community members encouraged her to join.

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.”

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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