Joyous Juneteenth celebration hails freedom from slavery in U.S.

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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photoEthell Tillis, center, emcees the Juneteenth celebration Saturday at Marine Park in Vancouver.

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Juneteenth, the oldest annual celebration of the end of slavery in America, arrived in Vancouver on Saturday, when the local chapter of the NAACP gathered at Marine Park to acknowledge the historic event with song, poetry and an official nod from Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt.

Leavitt presented the group with a proclamation recognizing Juneteenth Celebration Day in Vancouver. Traditionally, members of the group went to Portland to celebrate the event rather than having their own do in Clark County.

"We have a lot of cultural and ethnic diversity that we should be embracing as a community," Leavitt said.

The group sang the African American national anthem, "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing." The American people have more than one anthem, and the African American national anthem is for everyone, said Ethell Tillis, emcee of the event. Tillis and six of her grandchildren later sang "Oh Happy Day" for the crowd.

Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, recognizes the day when news reached slaves in Texas that the Civil War had ended and they were free.

President Abraham Lincoln freed slaves in the Confederacy in 1862 as a wartime contingency through the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution permanently banned slavery throughout the nation in early 1865 -- but Texas still refused to comply, even after the war officially ended in April.

On June 18, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger and 2,000 federal troops arrived in Galveston, and on June 19, Granger stood on a balcony and read aloud a declaration: "The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free."

Freed slaves rejoiced in the streets that day, and the following year saw the beginning of Juneteenth celebrations in Texas and elsewhere. There is no federal Juneteenth holiday, but most states have adopted Juneteenth as a state holiday. Washington made it a state observance in 2007.

"We still stand, and we still love," Tillis told a group of at least 50 people at the park on Saturday. She also acknowledged those besides African Americans who helped in the fight to abolish slavery. "We were not in this struggle alone. … We thank God for others who joined us."

Later in the afternoon, Vancouver resident Lucious Fuller, 27, read a poem that expressed the excitement freed slaves felt on June 19, 1865.

"I heard news we's free, and I sure hope it's true," Fuller read. "Because I've got a whole lot of life and so much to do."

The poem later touches on the disillusionment many African Americans have felt throughout history since then.

"White people spit salutations of segregation on my daughter just because she wants to learn. Is that freedom?" Fuller read. Referencing the 2012 shooting death of African American teen Trayvon Martin, Fuller continued: "What's freedom to somebody like me? In America, where an ice (tea) and a pack of Skittles can be the last request for your meal?"

Besides listening to speakers, Juneteenth participants browsed a few booths. One displayed a collection of T-shirts and baseball caps highlighting important moments in African American history, including the buffalo soldiers who fought in the American Civil War and the election of Barack Obama, America's first black president.

The Clark County Democrats were on hand to register people to vote, and a representative from Clark College spoke about the benefits of going to college. Democrats handed out buttons with an illustration of Obama fist-bumping Lincoln.

Those interested in learning more about Vancouver's NAACP branch and its offerings can call local NAACP president Marva Edwards at 360-909-7688, or visit http://naacpvanc.org or the organization's Facebook page, https://facebook.com/VancouverNAACP.


Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523; http://facebook.com/reportermathieu; http://twitter.com/col_politics; stevie.mathieu@columbian.com.