From the moment she woke up on Sunday morning, Sunshine Johnson was gearing up to win the Crowns Braid Battle at the Utah June 16 Festival – starting with what she said she ate for breakfast.
“Hard work and determination,” Johnson said, completely serious. “I woke up early and couldn’t eat because I was working hard for it.”
The Freedom and Heritage Festival in Ogden commemorated June 19 for more than 30 years, but this is the first celebration since the Legislative Assembly voted to make it a holiday. The day marks the release of the last enslaved African Americans in Texas.
Johnson and the other braiders, along with more than a dozen barbers, set up their supplies at the Ogden Amphitheater and got to work. Apart from their fierce concentration, music played over the loudspeakers and festival-goers listened to the call of their raffle ticket numbers. The braiders had three hours to compete for cash prizes, bragging rights and a heavy commemorative championship belt.
Johnson used her younger sister as a role model, as 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 failure,” Johnson said.
Schqueta Morning, one of the judges of the braiding contest, owns the hair haven salon and beauty supply store in Riverdale for over 20 years. The store’s main goal is to serve black customers, 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 is done, it lifts me up and makes me feel important.”
In about two hours, Johnson weaved the word “Juneteenth” into her sister’s hair and created a crown braid with extensions and jewels.
In the end, she did not take first place. But Meltia Hickman, Johnson’s sister and model, said the experience was always more than the competition.
“It’s not the simple fact that it’s a big thing to showcase,” Hickman said. “It’s the fact that it’s the culture. It is the community that comes together. These are people who show their different talents and who also bring them a clientele. This is an opportunity for our community as a whole to grow.
Johnson isn’t sure if she’ll compete again next year, but if she does, she said she’ll make sure she’s ready.
Even though she went home without that first 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 is not what other places are,” she said. “So if I helped share anything, if someone came up to my sister and said, ‘I like your hair, what is it? I like this.”