The celebration on Saturday began with the singing of a saxophone-led rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and ended with CNN political analyst April Ryan joyously shouting “Happy Juneteenth!” into a microphone.
In between, the Juneteenth seminar Ryan was leading — like other events marking the historic day in the Baltimore area — seemed to veer between uplifting and somber.
“Juneteenth is about what? Resilience,” Ryan, the CNN commentator and White House correspondent for TheGrio, told a packed house inside the tony BLK Swan restaurant in Harbor East. “The question today, as we celebrate resilience and freedom is, ‘Are we really free?’ "
Around the Baltimore area, Juneteenth — marking the widespread news of the end of slavery in the United States — was celebrated with music, speeches, parades and such kids’ activities as moon bounces and face-painting.
But local events — such as the BLK Swan seminar and outdoor activities attended by hundreds in Reservoir Hill — had a bittersweet feel.
Juneteenth has a complicated history. Following the abolition of slavery in the United States, it took time for word to travel to people who were enslaved and for them to be freed.
Juneteenth marks when the news finally reached people who were enslaved in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865 — two months after Confederate soldiers surrendered in the Civil War and more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
In Baltimore this weekend, the holiday presented a renewed call to service and a reminder of all that remains left undone for Black Americans.
“There is still much work to do as we celebrate on Juneteenth,” Joshua Harris, vice president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, said at the seminar, which featured a $100 brunch and guest speakers including Baltimore author D. Watkins, and Aaron Maybin, an artist, activist and former NFL player.
Ryan then chimed in about the law signed by President Biden last week designating June 19 as a federal holiday commemorating Juneteenth.
“I thought, ‘Wait a minute, What happened to voting rights first? What happened to policing?,” she said.
The U.S. Senate has not acted on two major voting rights bills, including one named after John Lewis, the late Georgia congressman and — civil rights icon. Advocates say the bills are needed because Republican-led states have been passing measures restricting the ability to vote, particularly in minority communities. State Republican sponsors say they are trying to safeguard balloting from potential fraud.
Also pending in the Senate is police reform legislation named for George Floyd, who died in 2020 after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck. Anger over Floyd’s death bubbled over in city after city around the country last year.
Both measures face significant Republican opposition.
The enactment of Juneteenth as a federal holiday may represent incremental progress, said Anthony Duncan, a patent lawyer who celebrated in Reservoir Hill with his wife, Daun, and their two young children, Dallas, 2, and Trey, 8 months.
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“I think [Juneteenth] is making the transition to mainstream,” said Duncan, 33. But “we recognize how easy it could be for such efforts to be a pacifier,” he said.
Daun Duncan, 32, a postpartum doula, called Juneteenth’s federal recognition “a step in the right direction” but said — whether it was recognized or not — “Juneteenth has been something I’ve been celebrating since childhood.”
It’s long been a time, she said, to “celebrate the legacy of our ancestors” and to enhance bonds within communities. The popular Juneteenth song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” is sometimes referred to as the Black national anthem.
Reservoir Hill put on a sprawling celebration. There were speeches from a stage, music, and giant soap bubbles for kids to play in. There was a basketball tournament and slam poetry, and face-painted kids eating ice cream.
But Stephanie Stallings, one of the organizers, said the neighborhood wanted the day to be utilitarian.
So the planners created a mobile COVID-19 vaccination clinic and areas for health screenings and haircuts. Banking experts and others were on hand to offer advice for people looking to become homebuyers.
“This wasn’t just fun; it was also educational,” she said.