Thousands of Americans marched in cities across the country Friday to mark Juneteenth, the day commemorating the end of slavery 155 years ago, which this year took on additional resonance following widespread demonstrations against police brutality and racial inequality.
Juneteenth, which is a melding of “June” and “19th,” is traditionally marked by cookouts and community events, which this year were largely canceled because of concerns about the coronavirus. However, activists across the country organized rallies, marches and car caravan protests to commemorate the day.
Multiple marches took place Friday in Washington, converging on the recently renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza across from the White House.
Several protesters in Washington told VOA that it was important for them to come to the demonstrations because many Americans are not taught about Juneteenth in school.
Tina Penny said, “I came out here today because my son wasn’t aware of what Juneteenth was.” She said she made him research the date and added, “We felt the need to come out here to actually celebrate it and experience it.”
Shoni Hinton, who is a teacher in Washington, said, “I think it’s important that teachers are out here representing black educators. … We weren’t taught this in school, so it’s up to us to make sure the generation under us knows all about Juneteenth.”
Marchers converged in cities across the country, including Chicago, Atlanta and New York. In Philadelphia, a large parade and festival were canceled this year because of the coronavirus outbreak, but several hundred people marched peacefully to protest racial discrimination.
The commemorations come at a time when protests have been taking place across the United States, triggered by the killing of George Floyd, an African American who died after a white Minneapolis police officer held his knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Friday that Juneteenth would be an official holiday for city workers and schoolchildren next year. He also said the city would form a new commission to study New York’s history of racial discrimination.
In Memphis, Tennessee, police said Friday that they would stop using “no-knock” warrants in the wake of the death of a black Kentucky woman, Breonna Taylor, 26, who was killed by police who had burst into her home. No-knock search warrants allow officers to enter a home without first announcing their presence.
The mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, said Friday that one of three police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Taylor would be fired.
In Colorado, Governor Jared Polis signed a police accountability bill into law Friday. The legislation bans chokeholds, ends police immunity to lawsuits and requires police body cameras.
Juneteenth has been celebrated since 1866 after the last African Americans in the United States were told they had been freed from slavery.
News made it to Texas
The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in Southern states in 1863, but the last enslaved people, located in the south-central U.S. state of Texas, did not get word of their freedom until 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in the city of Galveston.
The following year, former slaves began celebrating Juneteenth in Galveston. The celebrations eventually spread to other U.S. states and other countries such as Ghana, South Korea and Israel.
Some U.S. states, including Virginia and New York, have designated Juneteenth as paid holidays for state workers. Some corporations have also given employees the day off.
U.S. President Donald Trump said in a statement Friday Juneteenth “is both a remembrance of a blight on our history and a celebration of our Nation’s unsurpassed ability to triumph over darkness.”
Jason Patinkin of VOA’s English to Africa service contributed to this report.