“Juneteenth” took its first steps as an official national USA holiday, as offices and businesses were closed and various manners of celebration — marches, parades and concerts — took place throughout the nation and the Southland.
That included the “Multi-Cultural Celebration of Freedom,” held Monday, June 20, at the Alicia Broadous-Duncan Multi-Purpose Senior Center in Pacoima where bands, singers and dance teams performed and the delicious smells of pulled pork and fries, meat and vegan quesadillas, and boiled crab and other seafood from the three different food trucks filled the air.
But a question also hovered over the attendees who braved the nearly 100-degree temperatures for the five-hour outdoor event in the senior center’s parking lot: what now to make of Juneteenth, now the nation’s 11th federal holiday and the first such designation since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday became a holiday in 1983.
Should it be just a day of celebration or should it be something more?
Juneteenth’s origin goes back to 1865 when an estimated 250,000 still enslaved Africans in Galveston, Texas, were told by Union soldiers on June 19 that their enslavement in that state was over — nearly two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued during the Civil War by President Abraham Lincoln declaring the more than 3 million slaves in the rebellious Confederate States as freed.
Thousands of African Americans nationwide have been celebrating Juneteenth as a holiday, known as “Freedom Day,” since the 1940s. Last year, President Joe Biden officially signed Juneteenth — a combination of the words “June” and “Nineteenth” — as being a federal holiday into law. This was the first year it was celebrated as such.
At the Pacoima event on Monday, there were various opinions on what the holiday should represent or evolve into.
Veteran Southland voiceover artist and radio personality Kevin Nash (KJLH-FM), who was the emcee of Monday’s program, told the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol and then later referenced in his opening remarks to the audience, “We cannot let America equate ‘commemoration’ to being the end of our story. We appreciate the fact that it’s a national holiday. But this should be more than just a symbol or a day of celebration.
“I know many of our people, too, may not feel the same way that I feel. But we have to demand reparations. … This is not just a time to party and celebrate; it’s also a time to reflect.”
Some of those who attended said they still envision Juneteenth as primarily being an African American holiday.
“I feel it’s something that’s way overdue,” said Ronnie Moon, a Lake View Terrace resident. “I’m originally from Louisiana and to be honest, I don’t remember how I first found out about Juneteenth. It wasn’t in school, I can tell you that. I also didn’t know about ‘Black Wall Street’ and the ‘Tulsa Massacre,’ things like that. And I wonder why.
“Juneteenth is gonna have different meanings for different people. [But] this is our Fourth of July. White folks may look at it as another holiday, try to commercialize it and make as much money as they can off of it.”
Shalane Gilliam, who lives in Sunland, noted that African Americans “need to be recognizing our independence. It’s sad that in the city of Galveston people were not able to find out [they were free] until two years later, and all of the barriers and obstacles to try to get the word to them … You know, we already have the Fourth of July, which is, of course, for all the United States. But we were brought here. So we need to celebrate that we are free.”
“We’ve been celebrating Juneteenth in our family for probably 10 years. And when I did some research and found out more about it, [she felt] this is something that needs to continue to go forward for our younger generation, to them to understand the importance of how our ancestors had to fight so much,” Gilliam said
Ieshania Hamilton, a San Gabriel resident and a mother of four, said Juneteenth didn’t necessarily need to be a “day of service” in the way the King Holiday has become for some. But it should remain “a teaching moment” for future generations.
“I was born on the Fourth of July,” Hamilton said. “Everybody celebrates it as [an all-American] holiday. But [African Americans] didn’t have ‘our’ independence as a whole. We’re still counted as three-fifths of a person.
“I definitely feel, like, it’s important to continue to educate kids about that. [June 19] finally gives us an opportunity to say that on this day we were all free from being slaves. I’ve been teaching my kids this lesson since the day they were born, trying to put it at their level where they can understand. I feel it’s important to teach them these things because are they gonna get it from school? They’re not gonna really teach them the knowledge that they really need to know.”
Juneteenth could also be “a day of action,” according to senior center director Patricia Austin.
“When you think about it, it took two years for that portion of the country to find out they were free. That wasn’t an accident,” Austin said.
“A lot of young Black people now don’t even want to vote, and after all we went through to get the vote … [This should be a day to] get people registered to vote and understand the importance of voting. It took me a half hour to vote [in the June 7 primary]. But I didn’t care, because everything on the ballot was important for us. Intelligence also matters. We gotta keep telling our kids that.”
While the event was not widely attended — perhaps due, in part, to the hot daytime temperatures — event organizer Rev. Zedar Broadous said he wants to make it an annual event in Pacoima.
“Hopefully we can do it,” Broadous said. “Maybe combine a march and the festival into one day. Like anything, when you first sit down and ‘debrief,’ you talk about things you could do better. We should have a voter registration booth. We could have more booths addressing public health items, not only just for the Black community but other minority communities as well because, in general, health is a major issue in our communities.”
Most importantly, Broadous felt the evolution of what kind of holiday Juneteenth becomes over time should happen organically.
“A day of action? A day of celebration? A day of education? It can be all those things,” he said. “Yes, it’s the Black folks’ ‘Fourth of July’ in a sense. But it’s also a way of letting Americans in general — no matter what your background is — realize that if we don’t work together to ensure freedom, we can see legislation across this country where our freedoms are being chipped away. It doesn’t look like it because you can still go shopping, and you can still get on an airplane. But the reality is, some of our basic freedoms are being chipped away.”