Over the past 2 1/2 decades, Juneteenth has grown into a powerful draw for Minnesotans. The annual festival had more than 15,000 participants last year and expects to match that number Saturday at North Mississippi Regional Park.

A low-key gathering that began in the neighborhoods of north Minneapolis 26 years ago has blossomed into the second largest celebration of Juneteenth in the country, after Texas. The festival celebrates the June 19, 1865, announcement of the emancipation of slaves in that state. Texans began marking the event many years ago, and it spread to neighboring states and the rest of the country as African-American Texans migrated.

"Juneteenth needs to be recognized as our second independence day, like Flag Day or Patriot Day," said the Rev. Ronald Myers, chairman of the National Juneteenth Holiday Campaign, founded in 1994.

John Jamison, chair of the marketing committee of Twin Cities' Juneteenth, said it was meant to be a day of "freedom and remembering the past."

Several tents at the festival will focus on history and culture. Booths will offer information on local government services, health care and school registration. Housing agencies will be on hand to help people displaced by the tornado that struck in north Minneapolis last month.

Mary Pargo, president of Twin Cities' Juneteenth, said she hopes the festival also invites people to relax. Many local musicians and entertainers are booked to perform on the main stage, and vendors will sell a large variety of foods and ethnic crafts.

This year, people can row boats for free on the Mississippi River and compete for prizes in tennis.

"When the event kicks off, we're looking for people to enjoy the day and forget about their troubles," said Pargo.

Twin Cities' Juneteenth also plans to raise funds at the festival to keep the event fiscally sustainable in future years. Organizers will solicit donations to help reach the festival's annual goal of $50,000. The event costs approximately $80,000 to put on.

As a lead-in to the Juneteenth festival, 17 students went to a campground in Watertown, Minn., last weekend for an overnight depiction of what it was like to flee slavery on the Underground Railroad. At one point, the group simulated the act of fleeing as the sound of eight or nine barking dogs was played on a boom box.

"It really echoed and sounded real," said Willie Franklin, the head coordinator for volunteers of Twin Cities' Juneteenth. Franklin said the students disliked being awakened at 3 a.m. to flee to their next site, but several thanked him afterward for the experience.

Tasnim Shamma • 612-673-7603 Twitter: @TasnimS