Juneteenth, the long-obscured anniversary of the last enslaved Black people in America learning of their freedom more than 150 years ago, gained full national recognition this week — becoming a federal holiday meant to be honored by all.
And the crescendo of that momentous week came during the holiday itself, on Saturday, June 19, with thousands of people around Los Angeles County joining millions across the nation, all gathering to dance, eat, pray, march and celebrate in myriad other ways as they commemorated the end of slavery in America.
“When you have something like this in your heart and you have a passion you go for it,” said Patricia Bruce, who spoke at a gathering in Manhattan Beach. “Don’t let it simmer on the back burner. Go for it.”
Last year, around 50 people gathered at Bruce’s Beach in this seaside community for a Juneteenth event that helped spur the movement to return the once-Black-owned seaside resort land to its original owners. On Saturday, a year later, the beachfront saw the throng grow to hundreds.
“This beach is historic land that not everyone knows the story behind it,” said Eddy Miles, a Torrance resident. “It’s great to celebrate but this spot here is just a small victory in a much bigger fight to amend the wrongs of the past.”
Senate Bill 796, if passed by the state Legislature and enacted, would give L.A. County the authority to return two parcels of oceanfront land in the city to the descendants of the original Black owners who operated a seaside resort called Bruce’s Beach Lodge about a century ago, before then-city officials used eminent domain to take ownership of the property. The bill passed unanimously out of the Senate on June 2, and it headed on to the Assembly.
County officials, with Fourth District Supervisor Janice Hahn leading the way, have signaled that they will move quickly to return the land once Gov. Gavin Newsom signs the bill into law.
“We’re gonna show the world this is how we do it,” Hahn told the crowd Saturday. “You find a wrong and make it right.”
Down the coast, Carl Kemp, who organized a gathering on Pine Avenue, between 4th and 5th streets, in Long Beach, felt blessed by the arrival of the holiday.
“I chose to do this event in response to a call from God,” said Kemp. “And it has been blessed with volunteers, supporters and sponsors who also believe in the vision of celebrating Black freedom, culture, achievement and unity.”
Booths occupied with vendors, games and mini museums lined the block. A large stage featured performances throughout the day by Eric Benét, MAJOR, the Antioch Mass Choir and other artists.
“Today is more celebratory than anything,” said Anthony Richards, a Long Beach resident. “It’s good the holiday is being recognized and hopefully more people will get educated about it.”
David and Sharon McLucas, founders of the roaming exhibit, “Forgotten Images,” sought to teach festival goers, displaying collecting historical items they’ve collected for more than 25 years.
“We’re like the Black ‘American Pickers,’” David McLucas said. “We roam around the country to show others these pieces of history so they can better understand what today means.”
In Altadena’s Loma Alta Park, community members dedicated to the health of Black mothers and families gathered to spread the word.
The event was co-hosted by the Therapeutic Play Foundation, San Gabriel Valley African American Infant and Maternal Mortality (AAIMM) Community Action Team and the Black Mental Health Task Force, along with a coalition of other groups. The day kicked off at 9:30 a.m. with a walk through Loma Alta Park, followed by a resource fair where organizations shared health resources. The event also kicked off the Empowering Black Families Conversation Series. And polyrhythmic drumming, followed by performances by artists J.J. FAD and DJ Arabian Prince, got people dancing.
“We are here to celebrate our culture and inspire our community,” said Michelle Chambers, vice chair of the Black Mental Health Task Force.
AAIMM’s table offered diapers, bibs and fliers connecting families to health resources. Other stations offered COVID-19 vaccinations, lunch, massage, yoga and a therapeutic painting table.
Michelle Rosemond, managing director of the local organization Prototypes, spoke to the importance of supporting Black mothers. She addressed the “stereotype that Black women have a higher pain threshold,” noting how this can cause doctors to provide inadequate support during childbirth and contribute to a higher infant mortality rate. Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy related causes than white women, according to a report by Amnesty International.
Lisa David, a volunteer with the organization Shared Harvest, helped set up the event and passed out chicken, beef, and vegan hot dogs at a barbecue stand. “It is a truly gorgeous day,” David said. “Underneath these beautiful trees, enjoying the presence of others. Everyone is out.”
In Inglewood, people flocked to a car parade and a jubilant street festival in Leimert Park, the civic heart of the city’s Black community, as it reopened Saturday for the first time in three years.
Other events popped up all over Southern California, from Downtown to Venice, from Carson to Sunland, from Watts to Pomona and in many other communities.
Some have revered Juneteenth for generations.
Many Americans, however, have only recently come to understand its meaning. But that understanding spread quickly over the last year, catalyzed by the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent reawakening of calls for an end to systemic racism.
And this week, few can say they weren’t aware of it. That’s because President Joe Biden signed a bill on Thursday, June 17, that formally established Juneteenth as a federal holiday.
“I hope this is the beginning of a change,” the president said, “in the way we deal with one another.”
Biden’s comment was a plea for unity, a near-mythical concept in many political corners of America these days. But even amid the polarized political climate of recent years, the Juneteenth movement, for at the least a moment, created consensus among leaders. The Senate approved the bill by unanimous consent on Tuesday. A day later, the House of Representatives passed the bill overwhelmingly. Only 14 House Republicans — many representing states that were part of the slave-holding Confederacy in the 19th century — opposed the measure.
The holiday’s formal recognition caused many to celebrate. But some African American history experts tempered the occasion with a touch of wariness.
Those experts say they hope Americans don’t come to view Juneteenth as just another day off from work and school. Alaina Morgan, an assistant professor of history at USC, said that it’s important to not just take the day off — but to also switch our brains and hearts on.
“I think it’s important to participate in local commemorations,” Morgan said. “That (people) read about the holiday, that they commit themselves to furthering racial justice on this day and around this day, and we don’t think of it as a day off.”
Juneteenth celebrates the anniversary of Union Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger riding into Galveston, Texas, to tell enslaved people there that the Emancipation Proclamation had legally freed them from bondage more than two years prior, to the day.
Although the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the Confederate states in 1863, it could not be enforced in many places until after the end of the Civil War in 1865.
Granger delivered General Order No. 3.
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” the order said. “This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”
The next year, the now-free people of Galveston celebrated Juneteenth. The nascent holiday continued annually. And it spread. Around the nation and the world.
Juneteenth is a portmanteau of the month and date when Galveston’s Black people cast off their chains. The holiday is also known as Jubilee Day, Juneteenth Independence Day and Freedom Day.
And apropos to those celebratory names, the holiday’s annual events are traditionally festive. There are concerts and parades — and symbolism.
The events often include readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, penned as a wartime document by President Abraham Lincoln. And much of the food is colored red, a somber reminder of all the blood shed because of slavery, according to Adrian Miller, author of “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue.”
Some people create works of art and music commemorating the African American experience. Others teach the history.
“I think to be able to move forward, you’ve got to be able to really unpack the past,” said Tyrone Howard, professor of education and director of the Black Male Institute at UCLA. “Unpacking the past means looking at the horrors that were slavery, the economic aspects of this country’s foundation in the time of slavery and this is where the education piece comes.”
President Biden agreed.
“This day doesn’t just celebrate the past,” he said before establishing Juneteenth National Independence Day with his signature. “It calls for action today.”
Every state except South Dakota has officially commemorated Juneteenth — with Texas being the first state to do so in 1980. Large swaths of the Black community have celebrated the day in one fashion or another for years, Morgan said.
“If you come from a family or an area where you have a holistic understanding of Black history,” Morgan said, “then I think you’re more likely to have celebrated this particular holiday.”
Some have said they hope the more widespread the holiday becomes, the more people will learn about American history’s darker corners.
“I am grateful that in cities across the country, people of all races, nationalities and religions will come together every year on June 19,” said state Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Inglewood, “to acknowledge a period in our history that shaped and continues to influence our society today and the struggle for true freedom.”
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, meanwhile, echoed Biden’s call to action, urging colleagues in Congress enact legislation to advance racial justice, rather than considering the federal holiday the ultimate achievement.
Such action was launched Friday when Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and a coalition of American mayors launched an initiative to work toward reparations for Black Americans in an effort to recompense for slavery and centuries of systemic oppression.
“We’ve never had a serious solutions-oriented conversation about restitution to enslaved people or to their descendants. We’ve never adequately addressed the fact that in America the average Black family earning $100,000 a year lives in a neighborhood with an average income of $54,000 a year. Or that in my city, not just the 10 to one wealth gap but a nearly 100 to one wealth gap between white and Black families exists,” Garcetti said.
When it comes to equity, Waters said, there is still much work to be done.
“We are still waiting for Senate passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act,” she said. “We are still waiting for lynching to be classified as a federal hate crime. We are still waiting for the terrorists who destroyed Black Wall Street during the Tulsa Race Massacre to be held accountable and we are still waiting for Black history to be accurately taught in our schools.”
Republican-led states, though, have enacted or are considering legislation that critics argue would curtail the right to vote, particularly for people of color. Legislation that’s meant to address voting rights issues and institute policing reforms remains stalled in a Congress that acted swiftly on the Juneteenth bill.
And efforts are afoot across the country to limit what school districts teach about the history of slavery in America.
“As we celebrate the passage of this legislation, let us be clear that we will not be distracted or appeased,” Waters said, “and we will not simply accept Juneteenth as a federal holiday in exchange for real action that honors our history and our place in this country and moves us closer to achieving justice.”
City News Service, the Associated Press, the New York Times and SCNG staff writers Mark McGreal, Hunter Lee and Annakai Geshlider contributed to this report.
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