Rallies, peaceful marches and celebrations commemorating Juneteenth occurred across the United States on Friday, bringing together countless Americans in remembrance as the nation confronts a history saturated with systemic racism and injustice.
Juneteenth, known as the oldest celebration of the end of slavery in the United States, is not yet a US national holiday. While it has been celebrated by Black Americans for over 150 years, states, cities and universities around the country have begun to acknowledge the often-overlooked date as one that deserves greater recognition.
Beginning next year, Juneteenth will officially be a holiday in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Friday.
“We’ll work with all the unions to work through the plan, give this day the importance and recognition it deserves. Every city worker, every student will have an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of our history and the truth, and to think about the work that we have to do ahead,” de Blasio said.
The official city holiday designation also comes with the establishment of a new commission that will work to understand the effects of structural and institutional racism in New York City and “create a historical record of racial discrimination, with an emphasis on housing, criminal justice, environmental racism and public health,” according to a city press release.
“The movements led by African American people changed this country to the core and will continue to. So, this is just a beginning to acknowledge this holiday, but we have a lot more to do,” de Blasio said.
In Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser issued a proclamation recognizing June 19 as “Juneteenth Day” in the nation’s capital, calling this year’s celebrations “particularly significant as Black Lives Matter demonstrations happen across all 50 American states and around the world to protest centuries of police brutality and systemic racism against African Americans.”
The governors of Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Virginia, Kansas and Illinois were among state leaders who issued official proclamations designating June 19 as “Juneteenth Freedom Day” or “Juneteenth Recognition Day.”
In Minnesota, where the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers set off recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the United States and the world, Gov. Tim Walz said in a proclamation that “Juneteenth marks our country’s second Independence Day.”
“We must do everything in our power to come together to deconstruct generations of systemic racism in our state so that every person in Minnesota – Black, Indigenous, Brown, and White – can be safe and thrive,” Walz said.
In his official proclamation, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said “the history of Juneteenth is not just Black history—it is American history,” adding that the day marked “a pivotal moment in the American story that should be commemorated by all of us.”
Many universities closed Friday in honor of Juneteenth
A growing number of colleges and universities nationwide closed Friday in honor of Juneteenth.
Harvard University, Georgetown University, Columbia University, the University of Virginia, Towson University, Drake University, Loyola Marymount University and others celebrated Juneteenth as a university holiday and closed for listening, learning and reflection.
“All faculty and staff will have a full day of paid time off,” wrote Harvard President Lawrence Bacow in an email this week. “If you must work that day to support essential operations, your efforts will be acknowledged with other paid time off.”
The announcements come as some universities are also considering removing statues, renaming buildings and swapping mascots as part of the country’s larger call for changes to systemic racism and injustice.
“As I have said many times before, Columbia University is not innocent of the structures of racism that have afflicted America,” said Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger in an email Wednesday. “There is still much more to do.”
Other higher education institutions including Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania are honoring Juneteenth as a “day of reflection,” while Georgetown and Drake announced that Juneteenth will continue to be acknowledged as a holiday annually.
“As we confront the challenges of this moment, I hope that this day will be a moment for reflection and renewed commitment to the work of racial justice,” wrote Georgetown President John J. DeGioia.
Peaceful marches and gatherings see calls for activism against racial inequity
Speaking to reporters Friday at a Juneteenth event in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Rev. Al Sharpton said that people should use the holiday to both celebrate and commemorate the independence of enslaved Black Americans.
“It reminds us that it took almost three years after the signing of the emancipation proclamation for people in Texas to even know that slavery was over. And even after that we went through 100 years of Jim Crow. And when there after that we couldn’t vote,” Sharpton said. “And now we’re in the era where we are treated differently, even in a pandemic the health disparities, the disparities in criminal justice and policing.”
In Chicago, Illinois Gov. Bill Pritzker and US Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth joined hundreds of people marching through the city’s downtown district, flanked by signs bearing photos of George Floyd.
Earlier Friday, Pritzker tweeted that he was working with the state’s general assembly on “genuine criminal justice reform, a fundamentally reimagined version of policing, sustained investment in Black communities.”
In Washington, D.C., citizens gathered near the intersection of 14th Street and U Street for musical performances, speeches, jump-rope contests and more. Chants could be heard calling for a range of reforms including pay equity, equal access to food and reallocation of police funds, said CNN’s Brian Todd, who reported from the scene.
Demonstrators in Los Angeles could be heard speaking not only about the historical significance of Juneteenth, but also about the fact that the date marks when slaves in Texas found out they were free in 1865, despite the Emancipation Proclamation being signed two and a half years earlier.
Speakers at the rally could be heard “talking about taking control of their communities, owning their communities, and also … about changing the relationship between police and these neighborhoods,” CNN’s Stephanie Elam reported.
CNN’s Elizabeth Stewart, Sheena Jones, and Hollie Silverman contributed to this report.