Days after Juneteenth was made a national holiday, communities across the US are coming together to celebrate 19 June 1865, the day when news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Galveston, Texas, freeing slaves in the final Confederate state to have abolition.
Events in Atlanta scheduled for Saturday include a march beginning across from Ebenezer Baptist church, where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr preached and led demonstrations for social and economic justice, equality in access to public services, and voting rights, according to reports.
Atlanta and surrounding areas have been commemorating Juneteenth for years. Richard Rose, president of Atlanta’s NAACP chapter, said that Thursday’s declaration that Juneteenth is a federal holiday especially resonates in the southern city, often described as the “cradle of the civil rights movement”.
In Stone Mountain, Georgia, 20 miles from north-east Atlanta, the village of 6,500 is holding its first Juneteenth celebration. The event is particularly poignant given the locale: Confederate figures are etched into the mountain, and this nine-storey carving is the largest tribute to the south’s pro-slavery legacy.
The Chicago “March For Us” event will proceed over a mile-long route in this city’s business section, known as the Loop. “We celebrate Independence Day, so we would be remiss if we don’t celebrate the day that people who were worth three-fifths of the person finally became free and started this journey towards equality,” march organizer Ashley Munson remarked.
“Juneteenth in Queens” is one of the commemorative events in New York City. This week-long festival features virtual panel discussions, and it’s scheduled to wrap on Saturday, with food trucks serving items such as jerk chicken and waffles, and barbecue.
There are also in-person performances at this event, which is led by New York state assembly member Alicia Hyndman, who sponsored legislation in 2020 that made Juneteenth a state holiday.
One event in Colorado will feature a flyover honoring the legacy of Bessie Coleman. In 1921, Coleman became the first African-American woman to obtain a pilot’s license.
“That’s what Juneteenth means to me, independence and freedom for African Americans because of what our ancestors struggled through,” said Deneen Smith, a 17-year-old Black high school student. Smith, an aspiring pilot, has found inspiration in Coleman’s story.
Some Juneteenth celebrations in the south have been postponed, however, as Tropical Storm Claudette brings heavy rain, flooding, and high winds to coastal Mississippi and Louisiana.
When Joe Biden signed into law the bill recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday known as “Juneteenth National Independence Day,” he said: “Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments…Great nations don’t walk away. We come to terms with the mistakes we made. And remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger.”
Kamala Harris, the first Black woman to serve as vice-president, said at Thursday’s White House bill-signing ceremony: “We are gathered here in a house built by enslaved people. We are footsteps away from where President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”
“And we are here to witness President Joe Biden establish Juneteenth as a national holiday. We have come far, and we have far to go, but today is a day of celebration,” Harris said.
On Saturday, Biden echoed his prior remarks. “Juneteenth marks both the long, hard night of slavery and subjugation – and the promise of that brighter morning to come. It’s a day of profound weight and power. Today and every day, we must work to ensure our nation finally lives up to its promise of equality for all,” he said on Twitter.
Prior to Biden signing this legislation, Junteenth was recognized in 48 states and Washington either as a ceremonial or state holiday, per USA Today. And although the history of Texas’s emancipation is the most well-known, other watershed events in the history of emancipation happened on and around 19 June 1865.
Steve Williams, who heads the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, said the first known Juneteenth commemorations started in 1866, spreading across the US as African Americans moved to new cities, USA Today reported.
While Black Americans are rejoicing at Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday, many say that far more is needed to combat systemic racism. Republican states have signed into law, or are weighing legislation, that advocates said would limit voting rights—especially for persons of color.
Meanwhile, legislation that would ramp up voting rights, and enact the policing reforms called for following the murder of George Floyd, and deaths of other Black Americans at the hands of police, have stagnated in Congress. The federal recognition of Juneteenth comes amid GOP officials across the US trying to ban schools from teaching“critical race theory”, as well as the history of slavery and the ongoing impacts of systemic racism.
“It’s great, but it’s not enough,” Gwen Grant, president of the Urban League of Kansas City, said. “We need Congress to protect voting rights, and that needs to happen right now so we don’t regress any further.
“That is the most important thing Congress can be addressing at this time.”
Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report