SEATTLE — Juneteenth, already, is far bigger than it used to be.
For many years, Seattle’s largest celebration of emancipation and the acknowledged end of slavery was at Pratt Park on 18th Avenue South and Yesler Way. A few hundred people usually gathered to listen to speakers and music, and visit a handful of booths.
That was then. On Monday, the newest state and national holiday drew several thousand to the Northwest African American Museum and adjacent Jimi Hendrix and Judkins parks to a party atmosphere, complete with an elevated main stage, DJs and live music, an inflatable playground for the kids, a roller-skating party for everyone, and a food court leaning heavily toward barbecue and Southern cuisines.
A more modest Juneteenth celebration, sponsored by the city of Seattle and held at Seward Park, drew a smaller crowd but boasted an electric afternoon performance by longtime Seattle blues and soul singer Lady A.
The holiday celebrates June 19, 1865, when the Union Army arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce the Confederacy had surrendered two months earlier, on April 9, 1865, and that all enslaved people in the state were free. Texas was the last in the Confederacy to learn the Civil War was over.
Following the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the national racial reckoning brought on by the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, a new awareness of the significance of the date led the Senate in 2021 to make it a federal holiday by unanimous consent. The House passed a similar measure 415-14. Washington has also declared it a state holiday.
Monday’s celebration at NAAM was kicked off with fiery oratory by Elmer Dixon, a co-founder of the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1969, who told attendees to pay attention to the party’s Ten Point Program, adopted when the Panthers formed in Oakland in 1966, which he said “remains relevant in the community today.”
Dixon, 71, quoted Point Seven to the applause of the growing crowd: “We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people.”
Sitting on the grass back from the stage with a trio of friends and an enthusiastic Labradoodle named Remy, 29-year-old Makaela — she asked that her last name not be used — said her past celebrations of Juneteenth were mostly backyard affairs.
“You know, small ones, with family and friends,” she said, adding it’s “great” that awareness and celebration of the day has grown, but declined to go into what it all means to her personally.
“That would be a really long story,” she said.
Nearby, Seattle resident Thairyl Taylor, 61, was trying to coax smiles out of his granddaughters, Myracle, 7, and 4-year-old Lyric, both pouting, he said, because he stopped to talk while on the way to the ice cream truck.
The big, wide open celebration of this holiday, Taylor said, has “given us something where we can all gather without all the drama, and just be about being together.” The girls didn’t have any comment.