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“Are We Really Free?” This year’s Juneteenth events in Baltimore area to address deeper questions amid debates over reform

From left, Rozalyn Moore of Canton, and Megan Karanfil of the Patterson Park neighborhood, are organizing a Juneteenth picnic for the Canton, Patterson Park, Fells Point and Highlandtown neighborhoods on Friday beside the Pagoda in Patterson Park.
From left, Rozalyn Moore of Canton, and Megan Karanfil of the Patterson Park neighborhood, are organizing a Juneteenth picnic for the Canton, Patterson Park, Fells Point and Highlandtown neighborhoods on Friday beside the Pagoda in Patterson Park. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Until a few years ago, Elmer V. Sembly III said, he had something important in common with millions of Americans of every race and creed: He’d never heard of Juneteenth, the mostly informal holiday on which many African Americans have celebrated the end of slavery each year since the mid-1860s.

On Friday, the 61-year-old black pastor will help draw attention to what some call “America’s Second Independence Day” by leading a peaceful 1.1-mile march from Baltimore Police Department headquarters to the site of a 6-foot bust of Frederick Douglass in Fells Point.

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There, in a plaza in Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, Sembly will be one of a slate of speakers who plan to do more than salute Juneteenth. They’ll also address questions Sembly s have become urgent since the death last month of George Floyd, a black man, under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis: What degree of freedom do African Americans truly enjoy in 2020, and what can everyone do to advance the cause of liberty?

“We’re not on any side,” said Sembly, the senior pastor of Woodlawn Park Church of Christ in Windsor Mill. “A lot of people, even our white brothers and sisters, are looking for ways to address these problems.

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“We don’t have the answers, but we do have [speakers lined up] who have been studying these matters in for a long time. We hope to be part of the solution process.”

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union Gen. Gordon Granger read federal orders in Galveston, Texas, announcing that enslaved people in the state were free. The action made Texas the last Confederate state to accept the conditions then-President Abraham Lincoln spelled out more than two years earlier in the Emancipation Proclamation. Jubilation on that day in Texas gave birth to a tradition of annual celebrations that some African Americans have handed down within families and communities.

Friday’s 3 p.m. event, called the “Freedom March: Are We Really Free?” and set to happen rain or shine, is one of several commemorations planned this weekend in the Baltimore area, many of them to be carried out online due to continuing concerns over the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Juneteenth — a blend of “June” and “nineteenth” — has seen a gradual rollout over the past century and a half.

The anniversary celebration, held in Texas in 1866, centered on church-related social gatherings. The practice of throwing jubilant parties and picnics on June 19 spread across the South as formerly enslaved black people moved.

Historians say Juneteenth enjoyed a heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, often centering on socializing and Southern fare. A tradition of red-colored foods took hold, including such Juneteenth staples as strawberry soda, red velvet cake and spicy red sausages. Some say the hue symbolizes the resilience of enslaved people; food writer and soul food expert Adrian Miller wrote Thursday in the Los Angeles Times that the red represents blood shed by African Americans struggling for freedom.

Interest in the holiday took a back seat during the Civil Rights era, but returned over the next two decades, when themes of black freedom and culture became more prominent, incorporating everything from art exhibits and family reunions to Miss Juneteenth contests and rodeos.

Official recognition has come slowly, but gained momentum in recent years. Forty-seven states have deemed Juneteenth either a state or ceremonial holiday, as Maryland did in 2014. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made the latest move, signing an executive order Wednesday that makes Juneteenth a holiday for state employees. The nonprofit National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, meanwhile, continues to push for Juneteenth to be declared a federal holiday.

Still, awareness of the day has only recently started penetrating mainstream culture.

Rozalyn Moore, an African American physical therapist from Canton, said she knew little about Juneteenth until last year. That’s when the ABC sitcom “black-ish” aired a repeat of a 2017 episode in which the Johnsons, the affluent black family at the heart of the show, learned about and celebrated the holiday. One character shared an opinion as to why it had gained so little traction.

“People don’t want to celebrate something we barely want to admit happened,” she said.

The episode, one of the first portrayals of Juneteenth on American television, is widely acknowledged to have helped raise awareness.

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After watching the episode, Moore wanted to throw a bash last June 19, but work on her doctoral thesis got in the way. This year, with the unrest and debate around Floyd’s violent death still swirling, she saw “a perfect opportunity.”

She and a friend, Megan Karanfil of Patterson Park, have planned a picnic near the Pagoda in Patterson Park, where they’re encouraging all comers to bring barbecue, macaroni and cheese, collard greens and strawberry soda, wear something red and white, and hang out between 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Moore hopes constructive dialogue will ensue.

“We’re aiming for a partying kind of vibe,” she said. “It’s probably been a long time since people have talked to each other outside their homes. I’d love for them to enjoy the park, let the kids run around, and just sit down and converse.”

With forecasts including a possibility of thunderstorms, she has her fingers crossed for good weather.

Some organizers won’t have such worries, as the lingering pandemic has forced many observances online.

The Black Faculty and Staff Association of Johns Hopkins University will continue a recent tradition of celebrating Juneteenth, but will do so remotely.

Baltimore’s historically African-American community theater, the Arena Players, also will mark the occasion online, first with a Zoom meeting for “healing, storytelling and meditative journaling,” then with a Facebook Live event featuring entertainment.

On Friday and Saturday, the nonprofit Frederick Douglass Foundation will livestream “A Juneteenth Celebration of Community Resilience,” featuring “conversations with key figures [in Maryland] that have been around long enough to remember when our black communities were stronger, profitable and more resilient.”

Other demonstrations and events also will be available.

The march to the statue of Douglass, the writer and abolitionist born into slavery in 19th-century Maryland, meanwhile, will not lack for hard edges.

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Shelly Edison, owner of a business that promotes restorative healing, said she’ll speak about the pain police departments have caused and try to secure enough signatures to get a class-action lawsuit started against Baltimore police to “put an end to brutality.”

Poets, preachers and a forgiveness advocate also will speak.

In Sembly’s view, if the day can help people see the need to change hearts as well as outward actions, it will have been a good Juneteenth.

“Look at history,” he said. “The fight for freedom has always required something of everybody involved.”

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