Detroit — Americans across the country this weekend celebrated Juneteenth, marking the relatively new national holiday with cookouts, parades and other gatherings as they commemorated the end of slavery after the Civil War.
While many have treated the long holiday weekend as a reason for a party, others urged quiet reflection on America’s often violent and oppressive treatment of its Black citizens. And still others have remarked at the strangeness of celebrating a federal holiday marking the end of slavery in the nation while many Americans are trying to stop parts of that history from being taught in public schools.
“Is #Juneteenth the only federal holiday that some states have banned the teaching of its history and significance?” Author Michelle Duster asked on Twitter this weekend, referring to measures in Florida, Oklahoma and Alabama prohibiting an Advancement Placement African American studies course or the teaching of certain concepts of race and racism.
Monday’s federal holiday commemorates the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned they had been freed — two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued during the bloody Civil War.
On Juneteenth weekend, a Roman Catholic church in Detroit devoted its service to urging parishioners to take a deeper look at the lessons from the holiday.
“In order to have justice we must work for peace. And in order to have peace we must work for justice,” John Thorne, executive director of the Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance, said to the congregation at Gesu Catholic Church in Detroit.
Standing before paintings of a Black Jesus and Mary, Thorne said Juneteenth is a day of celebration, but it also “has to be much more.”
It was important to speak about Juneteenth during Sunday Mass, the Rev. Lorn Snow told a reporter as the service was ending.
“The struggle’s still not over with. There’s a lot of work to be done,” he said.
Most Black Americans agree, according to a recent poll. A full 70% of Black adults queried in a AP-NORC poll said “a lot” needs to be done to achieve equal treatment for African Americans in policing. And Black Americans suffer from significantly worse health outcomes than their white peers across a variety of measures, including rates of maternal mortality, asthma, high blood pressure and Alzheimer’s disease.
Although end-of-slavery celebrations are new in many parts of the country, in Memphis, where the slave trade once thrived, the Juneteenth holiday has been celebrated since long before it became a designated federal holiday in 2021. The Tennessee Legislature passed a bill earlier this year making it a state holiday, as well.
Festivities there include a multi-day festival including food, music, arts and crafts, and cultural exhibitions in a tree-lined park in the city’s medical district. The Memphis park once held an equestrian statue and the grave of slave trader and Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. The statue and the body were moved in recent years.
Memphis is home to the National Civil Rights Museum located at the site of the old Lorraine Motel, the former Black-owned hotel where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968. The museum is offering free admission on Monday to mark the holiday. At the museum, visitors can hear recorded speeches from civil rights leaders including King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers and others.
Ryan Jones, the museum’s associate curator, said Juneteenth should be celebrated in the U.S. with the same emphasis that July 4 receives as Independence Day.
“It is the independence of a people that were forced to endure oppression and discrimination based on the color of their skin,” Jones said.
The Juneteenth holiday, Jones said, should also be viewed as more than a day when people attend parties and cookouts. In fact, he said, it is a time to reflect on the past.
“It acknowledges the sacrifices of those early civil rights veterans between World War I and World War II, and of course in the modern society, the protests, the demonstrations, the non-violence, the marches,” Jones said.
As Americans gathered to mark the holiday, it wasn’t without incident. In a Chicago suburb late Saturday night, one person was killed and 22 were injured in a shooting still being investigated Sunday by police. One witness said the party in the parking lot of a Willowbrook, Illinois, strip-mall was a Juneteenth celebration.
The White House released a statement Sunday afternoon, saying: “The President and First Lady are thinking of those killed and injured in the shooting in Illinois last night. We have reached out to offer assistance to state and local leaders in the wake of this tragedy at a community Juneteenth celebration.”
The holiday observance continues Monday with Vice President Kamala Harris appearing on a CNN special with musical guests including Miguel and Charlie Wilson.
Schools and federal buildings will be closed Monday.