In years past, Christopher Johnson saw Juneteenth as a celebration, a symbol that African Americans had moved past the “stain” of racism and slavery.
But this year the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks at the hands of law enforcement and neighborhood vigilantes have turned the holiday into a time of reflection, the co-pastor of Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Houston said.
“For us it’s a reminder that every generation has to fight for their freedom," Johnson said, "that freedom is never really won.”
Normally religious communities mark Juneteenth with worship services, fellowship, service projects, parades and picnics. This year social distancing because of COVID-19 and unrest ignited by Floyd’s death beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer are changing where and how they will observe the day.
Mosques, synagogues, churches and other houses of worship around the country are planning everything from internet classes to marches and rallies, many reflecting on the state of race 155 years later.
Juneteenth is considered the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. While the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, it could not be enforced in many places until the Civil War ended two years later. June 19, 1865, was the day Union soldiers told enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, that the war was over and they were free.
Over the years Reedy Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Galveston, scene of the first documented celebration of Juneteenth, in 1866, has reenacted the historic march of about 800 people, black and white, from the old Galveston Court House to the church and held a program of thanksgiving, prayer and food, said Sharon Gillins, a church trustee, genealogist and retired college educator.
“We’ve been part of Juneteenth for a very very long time,” she said.
This year the coronavirus pandemic is pushing things online, with the church hosting a watch party that will be livestreamed on the Facebook channels of the Galveston Regional Chamber of Commerce and a local news site.
“There will be reference to the unrest, but the message is going to be the message of jubilee and we are celebrating our emancipation,” Gillins said.
One focus will be honoring former Texas state Rep. Al Edwards, who died in April. The Houston legislator introduced and championed the bill that made Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980, making Texas the first state to recognize the day in that way.
Gillins said her Juneteenth message is also a call for people to be open to diversity.
“Once you learn about other cultures, that opens you up to empathy for other cultures," she said. "Juneteenth is not a black holiday, it’s part of history.”
In Milwaukee, All Peoples Church is teaming up with black fraternity Omega Psi Phi and other community groups for a service day that will include making protest signs, COVID-19 testing, an ACLU presentation on civil rights, voter registration and helping residents fill out Census forms.
“This year, with all of the unrest and turmoil, we decided to do something of substance, to make a difference,” Pastor Lindsey Beukelman said. "This day is about freedom, and we’re still working on it.”
In Houston, Johnson is planning a more reflective day. The church has no official activities planned but the senior pastor, D.Z Cofield, will hold an informal zoom conversation that will likely include how to talk to children during stressful times.
Johnson met Floyd growing up in the city's Third Ward and later grew close to him when Floyd began to help with youth outreach at the Cuney Homes, a low-slung warren of more than 500 apartments south of downtown nicknamed “The Bricks.”
“The situation with Floyd has really caused us to recommit, recommit ourselves to the fight of marginalized and minority people in this country,” Johnson said.
“Previous years for Juneteenth, man, I think it was always from the perspective of, 'We’ve arrived,'" Johnson said. "The deaths are evidence that is not the case, and we realized that in many ways the United States of 1865 is still the United States of 2020.”
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