On June 19, it will be 157 years since enslaved blacks in Galveston, Texas, learned of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
It had taken about two and a half years for the news of emancipation to reach them. They were deprived of their freedom until Major General Gordon Granger and Union troops marched on Galveston to announce that Lincoln had declared all enslaved people free.
Though dating back more than a century, June 16 is still a relatively new holiday for some who celebrated Saturday in East St. Louis. The federal government recognized it as a public holiday for the first time in 2021, following historic protests following the May 25, 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Residents from the St. Louis area spoke about what June 16 means to them.
“Partying on the Wrong Day”
Terra “T-Baby” Jenkins of East St. Louis said she celebrated her independence on the Fourth of July like many Americans do.
After learning of June 16 three years ago, she realized that she had “celebrated the wrong day” because blacks were not free on July 4, 1776, when the Continental Congress passed the Declaration of Independence.
“I was reading up on what (June) was really our Independence Day,” Jenkins said. “We learn from our elders and raise our children to see how important it really is. I wasn’t told about it, but kids will remember this day. It feels so warm.”
Grace Glass, 17, was named Miss Juneteenth Illinois. Incoming high school senior from Swansea says Juneteenth is a celebration of black culture.
“It means celebrating our milestones, our past, where we are now and where we’re going. It also means taking the time to not only really think about the holiday, but to see what you can do on the day, to see loved ones, get together for reunions and barbecues, and just thrive in your blackness ‘ Glass said.
Glass didn’t learn about June 16 at school, so it wasn’t a holiday she was celebrating until she discovered it in recent years.
“I’m so glad it’s achieved federal holiday status,” Glass said. “I love my people, I love the culture we’ve created, I love how far we’ve come and I love the future we’ve carved for ourselves.”
“A Very Big Celebration”
Jahja Uwizeye, 16, of St. Louis, says June 16 is a time for friends and family to get together. Uwizeye is a professional African drum and dance performer and performed as part of the East St. Louis Community Performance Ensemble during Saturday’s Juneteenth events.
“This is a very big celebration for us,” said Uwizeye. “It is time for us all to gather together. That’s what June 16 means, and that’s what we’re here for today. It is wonderful.”
Dakari Jefferies and Jevon Gibson, both 7 years old, watched as the Junteenth motorcade drove through East St. Louis on Saturday. Their families have started educating them about the holidays.
“It’s there to help people,” Gibson said.
Jefferies celebrated June 16 for the first time last year.
“Freedom,” Jefferies said when asked what the holiday means to him.
‘I am blessed’
George Mays, 78, is the great-grandfather of Jefferies and Gibson. He watched the motorcade drive by while firefighters threw candy at his great-grandchildren.
“I took some of the knowledge I got from my father and passed it on to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” Mays said. “It’s an opportunity to enjoy the freedom they created for us.”
“I’m blessed,” Mays said. “I’m coming to a June 16 parade for the first time in my life. Having my grandson calling me this morning and asking me to step in lets me know I have a double blessing.”
This story was originally published June 18, 2022 4:35 p.m.