Juneteenth: A celebration for freedom

On June 19, 1865, Major Gen. Gordon Granger told the people of Galveston, Texas, news that was nearly two and half years old.

But for the group of people that huddled around to listen, it was the best news they heard. President Abraham Lincoln had abolished slavery.

After that day, Juneteenth became a celebration for the newly freed slaves. In the years following, June 19 was celebrated as a day to be with family and friends. While popular with the black community in Texas, the day was widely ignored by other cultures and states.

As time passed, the popularity of the holiday diminished and, with the onset of the Great Depression, most celebrations were cancelled or overlooked. It was not until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s that Juneteenth was re-introduced to many people in the black community. People across the country were educated in the history of Juneteenth, as celebrations and festivities were planned from Houston to Minneapolis in commemoration of the day.

Only 12 states officially recognize it as a holiday, and several others have introduced legislation to recognize the day.

Jeanie Blue, the executive director of Juneteenth of Tampa Bay Inc., said she remembers learning of the holiday in the late 1970s.

“While I was living in Houston, I was introduced to Juneteenth and the celebrations surrounding it. I’d lived in Florida for so long, I knew nothing about it,” Blue said.

Declared as a state holiday in Texas in 1980, Blue said she had hopes for Florida’s acceptance of the holiday when she returned in 1987.

“When I moved back, I was accustomed to celebrating this holiday, and there was nothing going on in Florida,” Blue said. “So I got some friends together, and we started a committee and did our best to spark some interest.”

In October of 1991, the efforts of Blue and other activists paid off when Gov. Lawton Chiles signed legislation making June 19 a legally observed holiday in Florida. In turn, Blue’s committee became a non-profit organization to receive funding for sponsoring community commemorations, which were first held in 1992.

This year’s celebration will span four days, beginning tonight at 7 with a candlelight vigil held at Straub Park in St. Petersburg.

“The Middle Passage Candlelight Vigil is a sacred ritual to honor ancestors who came through the middle passage from Africa to North America,” Blue said. “This event focuses on reconciliation, forgiveness and restoration, all of which is what Juneteenth is about.”

On Sunday, June 21, there will be a Family Fun Festival at Campbell Park in St. Petersburg, starting at 10 a.m. Live entertainment will run throughout the day, including performances by jazz and hip-hop artists and African dance troupes. Vendors will be selling art and clothes from or inspired by Africa, and many social service organizations will be on site to help raise awareness for their cause.

“On this day, we also expect to have some guest speakers,” Blue said. “Historically, the mayor and other representatives and city council members have shown up to greet people and say a few words.”

The celebration wraps up with a gospel and inspirational performance on Sunday at the Stuart Isom Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Petersburg at 4 p.m.

The events are sponsored by WLLD 98.7 FM, WXRB 1590 AM and The Tampa Tribune, and are expected to draw thousands of visitors.

Blue said she hopes that the spirit of Juneteenth will not be lost after the festivities have commenced and that people will continue to educate each other about this little-known holiday.

“There is a national movement to make Juneteenth a federal holiday as its significance becomes more apparent. Many people don’t realize it, but this day changed the lives of Americans — not only African-Americans, but all Americans,” Blue said.

“It’s important for us to remember that none of us are free until all of us are free.”