Today is Juneteenth, a celebration remembering the end of slavery in the U.S.
It’s a holiday recognized by 47 out of 50 states and now some people are fighting for it to be recognized on a federal level.
In a modern-day battle for police reform and equality, recent protest and unrest in African American communities have sparked new interest in understanding and reflecting on communities of color.
Kevin Wright is the Black/African American Program Coordinator at UNLV. He explained that some people don't understand where the holiday came from.
“I know that some people are so far removed within the African diaspora that may not know about Juneteenth. They may not know about other historically black celebrations,” he said.
Juneteenth started in Texas at the end of the Civil War. President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves, on January 1, 1863, but for a variety of reasons, including poor communication systems of the time and outright defiance of the order, many communities around the South did not follow it.
When General Gordon Granger and his Union troops took over Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, he informed everyone of the president's order.
General Order Number 3 which began with:
"The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer."
Since then, the holiday has grown to the celebration it is today.
Las Vegas has had a Juneteenth celebration for 20 years. Unfortunately, this year's event, like so many other events, was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Wright said Juneteenth is an important date that needs to be recognized.
"We’re trying to maintain our history and we’re trying to let folks know that there is significance, there is power in this specific date. We need to know about it, because while we are technically free, we still need to address the certain injustices that still exist even in the year 2020,” he said.
Efforts have been underway for years to make the day a federal holiday. Wright said during the Obama Administration there was a big push but it never passed.
Despite that, he is confident it will eventually happen.
“I have confidence that Juneteenth will become a federal holiday within our lifetime,” he said.
City Councilman Cedric Crear is happy to see people pushing to make Juneteenth a national holiday.
“It’s our history and it’s black history and it’s something that should be more widely recognized than it is now,” he said.
Crear said the country needs to do a better job explaining the importance of the date.
He was working with the organizers of the annual Juneteenth celebration to have the city partner with them on this year's event. He's hopeful that next year's celebration will be even better than what was planned this year.
Diane Pollard is the founder of Rainbow Dreams Educational Foundation and an organizer of Las Vegas' Juneteenth celebration. She grew up celebrating the holiday in her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“When you go to Juneteenth, the music is there, the smell of the food, the children are playing, there’s generational ancestry there – two or three generations – maybe more. It’s just a fun, fun time,” she said.
She is also hopeful that when the celebration can return it will be the great community event it has been over the years.
In the meantime, she suggests people celebrate by having a cookout or picnic in their own backyard and let the eldest family member talk about their life experiences growing up.
This year's Juneteenth celebration comes amidst widespread protests. Demonstrators want racial injustices to be addressed, especially when it comes to how police treat people of color.
Wright said he has had many conversations with students and faculty about the demonstrations. He said that the black community is not a monolith with one mind on what needs to be done.
But the overarching theme from many of the young people he's talked to is that the time for talk is over. They want action.
“Stop having a conversation, stop talking, stop creating another hashtag, stop with the black squares, 'I need action. I need policies re-written. I need new laws put into place. I need people to get more training. I need more people to be more culturally competent in all industries and all aspects of an institution as well as other industries in America,'” he said.
One concrete step that took place this week has caused a lot of controversy. UNLV removed the Hey Reb statue from in front of the Alumni Center.
Wright said he's heard from all kinds of people about the decision.
“I think the significance is very impactful because of what the Hey Reb statue represented,” he said.
The UNLV mascot has been under fire for a long time, he noted, because of its connection to the Confederacy. Wright said that for some people removing the statue was a priority.
For other social justice advocates, it's not a priority and really a drop in the bucket of what needs to be done. Wright believes it is just the beginning of the transformations that are ahead for the institution.
For his part, Councilman Crear said there is no doubt Las Vegas has more to do to address police brutality and inequality.
“We do have a long way to go. We’ve made a lot of progress within Las Vegas,” he said.
Crear applauded steps Las Vegas Metro Police have made like banning chokeholds, establishing more community policing programs and creating a community working group to meet with department leaders.
However, he said the people he has talked to in his ward are frustrated and upset about the number of black men and women killed at the hands of police officers.
Crear said his family will be remembering the holiday with a special meal and a moment to say 'Happy Juneteenth,' something he believes more people should be saying.
“Any time we can take a moment to celebrate such a historic moment in our society, and it means more than just the freeing of slaves, it is the freeing of an entire race of people of bondage and allowing them to go move forward with their lives and build what we have built today. That wouldn’t have happened without Juneteenth,” he said.
Wright wants people to acknowledge the holiday but he also wants them to understand what they're saying when they say, 'Happy Juneteenth.'
“I always tell people, ‘Yeah, acknowledge it and also – please – be understanding of it. Have competency in it, know why you are acknowledging it. If you’re acknowledging it for the sake of acknowledging it then I feel that you’re missing the mark,” he said.
Kevin Wright, Black/African American Program Coordinator, UNLV; Diane Pollard, Founder, Rainbow Dreams Educational Foundation; Cedric Crear, Ward 5 councilman, Las Vegas City Council
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