Music from the gazebo at Esther Short Park in downtown Vancouver could be heard for blocks as people gathered Friday for the Juneteenth Freedom Celebration.
Dozens of booths encircled the park, and food trucks filled the courtyard in the southeast corner for people to eat, dance, play games and connect with community groups, despite the clouds and, at times, pouring rain.
While the Vancouver branch of the NAACP has hosted Juneteenth celebrations in past years, Friday’s event marked the first large-scale, city-backed gathering for the holiday. The event, hosted by Odyssey World International Education Services, also returned in person after years of virtual gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Juneteenth National Independence Day — traditionally celebrated June 19 — commemorates the day in June 1865 that soldiers arrived in Texas to free the last African American slaves, 2½ years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. Last year, President Joe Biden signed a law making Juneteenth the first new federal holiday since the addition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983. Gov. Jay Inslee signed a measure making Juneteenth a state holiday, as well.
Charlie Fisher and Naleigha Williams — this year’s winners of The Historic Trust’s General George C. Marshall Leadership Awards — each spoke during the celebration of the need to engage young people and listen to what they want the country’s future to look like.
“If we don’t have the support of the people around us, we will never be able to reach our goals or reach our fullest potential,” Williams said. “I believe as we continue to listen and engage in these conversations and make sure that we are networking and mentoring youth and being able to pour life and validate their goals, that everyone and the community will be better for it in the end.”
Fisher is a recent graduate of Ridgefield High School and said she never imagined she’d see a gathering like Friday’s in her community. She spoke about her experience as being one of a few Black students at the school.
“Never would I have ever thought we would be recognizing Juneteenth, a day of Black liberation, in Clark County, Wash.,” Fisher said. “I learned something new about this community, one that I get to call home every day. Within my high school career, I have learned that a community like ours is more than capable of coming together, united, to spark dialogue about something that may be foreign to others.
“It all starts locally, and while a Juneteenth celebration in Southwest Washington may seem little, in my eyes, this is that anger being put into action,” she added. “Dialogue and conversations are what promote community building and strength. Knowledge is something to be shared among many, especially among youth and adults.”
Fisher highlighted the importance of celebrating the newest federally recognized holiday.
“Today we are here to recognize our ancestors. Whether you are Black, white, brown, or other, these Black trailblazers have made an impact on our country that is imprinted in our everyday lives,” Fisher said. “Independence and freedom are repeatedly recognized on the Fourth of July. But how can we all be free when marginalized groups did not have the same experience/representation in 1776? Juneteenth is about education, awareness and an inclusive environment.”
Karen Morrison, executive director of Odyssey World International Education Services, said Friday’s celebration was just as the group imagined and that she’s proud of all of the people that attended.
Although she was happy to gather in person again, she said the Black community never stopped connecting during the pandemic. She felt the weather wouldn’t turn people away from the festivities.
“This is so important,” Morrison said. “They were going to come no matter what. There could’ve been a snow storm, and they were going to show up. This is historic to be recognized.”