Juneteenth gets greater observance amidst demands for racial justice

Phyllis Davis, portraying Harriet Tubman, sings “Steal Away” during the Juneteenth Celebration at the Star Hill AME Church in 2017. (Delaware State News/Mike Finney)

Sandy Clark already prepared a different type of Juneteenth celebration this year and then the anniversary took on an even deeper importance in the wake of international calls for racial justice and police reform.

“Right now, we as African Americans, we are really going through something. COVID-19 already has been a real downer and we’re still devastated from that, because it’s affecting more African Americans than ever. And then, all this racial injustice came along,” Ms. Clark said Thursday. “We are traumatized, and that goes across the board. Every time we turn on the TV or look on the news, somebody else is getting killed. People don’t understand that black lives matter.”

As treasurer and pageant director for the Delaware Juneteenth Association, Ms. Clark said it was a challenge approaching the holiday with the restrictions on large public gatherings to stem the spread of COVID-19.

“So what we decided to do, we had to stay focused. We knew that we wanted to have a religious service, which we do every year, and couple it with this webinar to talk about African American trauma,” she said, citing hundreds of years of racial discrimination.

In wake of the death of George Floyd, a black man who died under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer on May 25, millions of Americans have called for reevaluating policing and racial discrimination in all facets of life. This has resulted in an influx of interest in the holiday across the country this year, and even more recognition at the state level.

Gov. Carney announced Thursday that all state offices would be closed Friday in honor of the holiday. Many other agencies followed suit.

“As we move forward, I believe the least that each of us can do is commit to learning the lessons of our history. The good and the bad,” he said in a press release on Thursday.

Juneteenth’s origin comes from June 19, 1865, when U.S. Army Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas — two years after the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery — and issued General Order Number 3 declaring “all slaves are free.”

The state began recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday in 2000, but 2020 is the first time state offices will close. For the Delaware Juneteenth Association, that state recognition is very important.

Association President Sylvia Lewis-Harris said their chapter has advocated for more recognition of the holiday for years, even before the state officially recognized the holiday in 2000.

“We’ve been working tirelessly for this whole 20 years. So, you can imagine how elated we were when we saw the notification that the state and the city offices were going to be closed to celebrate Juneteenth,” she said. “We started celebrating.”

Ms. Lewis-Harris and Ms. Clark said they are excited to see this progress and motivation to change, but this does not erase the many struggles African Americans are facing.

COVID-19 has disproportionately killed black Americans more than white Americans, a trend that can be observed in nearly every state. For example in New York City, black people are twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than their white counterparts, according to city health data.

Ms. Lewis-Harris compared the killing of black Americans to a pandemic, much like COVID-19.

“This is a pandemic on top of a pandemic. The killing of black people by the police and otherwise didn’t just start. This has been 401 years that black people have been resilient,” Ms. Lewis-Harris said.

During a normal year, emancipation holiday celebrations would feature large barbecues and parades, but the rise in COVID-19 has forced communities to adapt to a virtual platform.

The Delaware Juneteenth Association will host its virtual panel discussion at 7 p.m. Friday focused on the history of the holiday and African American trauma. The panel will start with a religious service and then will feature discussions from state officials, including Gov. Carney, and other spokespersons and activists from the community.

The association also will host a drive-by caravan in Wilmington on Saturday, when people are encouraged to decorate their cars for Juneteenth and ride through the city spreading their message of equality and honking their horns in support. The caravan will start at noon at Christina Park at Fourth and Church streets and drive across the entire city to demonstrate.

“Now, we just need to take the time to learn about each other and each other’s experience, accept each other’s experience without taking it personally, and try to move forward as one,” Ms. Lewis-Harris said. “We’re about hope. We’re about moving America forward, black people included. We just want to be recognized as who we are and to be treated equally. Nothing more and nothing less.”

People interested in tuning in for the virtual panel tomorrow to learn about “all things Juneteenth”, as Ms. Clark and Ms. Lewis-Harris have described, can register for free on their Eventbrite page, www.eventbrite.com/e/delaware-juneteenth-observance-panel-discussion-tickets-108884440292 or stream it live on the Delaware Juneteenth Association Facebook page.

Gov. Carney is also participating in a live discussion about the holiday on his Facebook page at 11 a.m., featuring officials from the Delaware Heritage Commission along with other spokespersons from across the state. It also is available at de.gov/live.