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Juneteenth: a day to reflect, celebrate and educate | COMMENTARY

June 19 -- Jeanna Tillery of Baltimore touches the sculpture of Frederick Douglas at the end of the Freedom Day March in celebration of Juneteenth that started at City Hall and ended in Fells Point.
June 19 -- Jeanna Tillery of Baltimore touches the sculpture of Frederick Douglas at the end of the Freedom Day March in celebration of Juneteenth that started at City Hall and ended in Fells Point. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

This week, many people throughout Baltimore and beyond are celebrating Juneteenth, which commemorates the moment enslaved people in Texas received the news that they were free. It marks the end of the institution of slavery and the beginning of the generational pursuit of freedom. Though the war had already been won and their emancipation proclaimed, the arrival of the news caused great celebration, and today, we celebrate Juneteenth with reflection, celebration and education.

Juneteenth, officially observed on June 19th, also marks the fourth day of remembrance to occur in the span of a month’s time. Though the events we remembered are different, there is an enduring thread woven through each. It’s the thread of distorting truth by delay, exclusion, concealing or silence.

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On May 25th, we remembered the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder. We remembered how a glaring injustice moved millions of people to action. Protesters flooded the streets of our city while shouting Floyd’s name and the names of others unjustly killed. Multitudes rushed to Black-owned stores to buy books in the hope of broadening their understanding of race in America. Paint covered street blocks with the statement that Black Lives Matter. A year later we contemplate whether Floyd’s death has resulted in incremental or generational change. There is one element that remains consistent. The initial police report described George Floyd as having a medical emergency that led to his death. The actual events were excluded from the report but captured on a young lady’s camera. She revealed the truth of George Floyd’s final moments. She exposed the brutality that snatched his final breath and forced us to reckon with injustice in our society. George Floyd’s story was almost excluded. We could only remember because someone was present to reveal the truth.

On May 31st, we remembered the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre and the atrocities committed against a thriving Black community. The entire community was violently attacked, buildings were destroyed, businesses were looted, and entire street blocks were bombed. These horrible events were not forgotten, they were buried. We couldn’t grieve because their stories were rarely told. It was in recent times that there was an effort to unbury the stories and the bodies of the people who built this prosperous community. The more facts that are unearthed, the more we can sufficiently honor and remember. It is only because the truth has been excavated that we can remember this community’s history.

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On that same date, we also celebrated Memorial Day and those who gave their lives serving in the U.S. military. In his book “Race and Reunion,” David Blight recalls the practice of Black churches memorializing the sacrifice of Union soldiers who fought for their freedom. He describes how the “official dedication ceremony was conducted by the ministers of all the black churches in Charleston. With prayers, the reading of biblical passages, and the singing of spirituals, black Charlestonians gave birth to an American tradition … the war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration.” This is a story that’s rarely told about a national holiday, but in Ohio, retired Army Lt. Col. Barnard Kempter intended to amplify it and the contribution Black people made to establishing Memorial Day. He began telling the story as he stood behind a microphone, while clothed in full military regalia. In the middle of his speech his microphone was abruptly turned off because the history he was sharing was deemed inappropriate for the occasion. Lt. Col. Kempter’s microphone was muted in an effort to silence the memory of the voices singing spirituals that established Memorial Day.

This Juneteenth I am reminded of the fragility of memory. The risk is not that we can forget, but that we might never know. Truth is often silenced, concealed, excluded or delayed. So, we must reveal, reflect, remember and celebrate. We must be devoted to teaching a narrative that includes the presence and contributions of everyone before us. At the same time, we have to work together to shape this chapter of Baltimore’s history. A chapter where we determine the outcome by our resilient hope and collective work. Then a brilliant legacy will remain for following generations to remember.

George Hopkins (hopkins_george@hotmail.com) is lead pastor of the Sowebo Community Church and a member of the strategy team of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development.

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