US marks slavery's end on new 'Juneteenth' national holiday

US marks slavery's end on new 'Juneteenth' national holiday
Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when the Union army announced to African Americans that enslaved people were free.
4 min read
A George Floyd statue was unveiled as part of Juneteenth celebration in New York City [Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

With marches, music and speeches, Americans on Saturday celebrated "Juneteenth," the newly declared national holiday that marks the end of slavery and which comes a year after George Floyd's murder sparked anti-racism protests.

Hundreds of events were held across the country, from New York to Los Angeles, and most notably in Galveston, Texas, the symbolic heart of the Juneteenth commemoration.

For on 19 June, 1865, it was in that Texas coastal area that the Union army - victorious after the bitterly fought Civil War - announced to African Americans that, even if some in Texas were trying to ignore it, enslaved people were now free.

Slavery was formally abolished in December 1865, with the adoption of the 13th amendment to the US Constitution, but Juneteenth has remained the emblematic date marking the freeing of enslaved Americans.

This year's Juneteenth celebrations are all the more celebratory, coming just days after President Joe Biden signed legislation making 19 June a national holiday, and at a time when pandemic-imposed restrictions on public gatherings are steadily being eased.

"I feel wonderful, I feel proud, I feel a sense of accomplishment for the struggle," Sharonda Newby said at a rally in Galveston, where she grew up. "I feel like they've given us some momentum, some resilience to continue to push forward."

"It was a long time coming," said 68-year-old Cheryl Green, who was attending the unveiling in the New York City borough of Brooklyn of a bust of George Floyd, the Black man killed by a white policeman in Minneapolis in May 2020.

"It's good that people get to recognise what happened," said Green, an African-American resident of Brooklyn's Flatbush neighborhood. "Changes are being made slowly, but surely we'll get there."

In Washington, hundreds celebrated on Black Lives Matter Plaza, a section of a main road near the White House that was renamed by the city amid the huge anti-racism protests galvanized by Floyd's death.

Kevin Blanks, a 29-year-old Black man, said he had come to denounce the racism that is "still very much embedded in the DNA of this country."

He wore a T-shirt that paid tribute to Black leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman.

Danique McGuire, a 51-year-old Black woman, said that by signing the Juneteenth legislation into law, "President Biden has recognized the importance of Black Americans."

She added, however, that "the fight is still long" for equality.

Floyd's killing touched off global protests against racism and police violence toward minorities.

That movement helped raise the visibility of Juneteenth - a date that many Americans, including many African Americans, had not heard of even two years ago.

An opinion survey published Tuesday by the Gallup institute found that 28 percent of Americans knew "nothing at all" about the anniversary.

"I didn't learn about Juneteenth until I got to high school," said Farah Louis, a Black city official in New York, who was attending the Floyd unveiling in Brooklyn.

She said Juneteenth should be used to "educate our young people" about the treatment of Black people through American history.

Celebrating Juneteenth now seems "a bit surreal" at a time many Republican-led states are passing laws that limit voting options in ways that "most acutely affect communities of colour," tweeted Sharif Street, a Black state legislator from Pennsylvania.

From January through May, 14 states, notably Georgia and Florida, passed laws limiting opportunities to vote - measures seen as aimed at reducing the influence of minority voters, particularly African-Americans.

To Street, it is "a reminder that our wins are not permanent."

Draft legislation to protect voting rights is currently being debated in the US Senate, but with many Republicans opposing it, its fate appears uncertain.

To Louis, the Juneteenth proclamation together with the impetus from the George Floyd movement present an opportunity.

"You have to strike while the iron is hot," she said, citing among other issues the idea of government-paid reparations to compensate descendants of enslaved people.

On Friday, the mayors of 11 American cities, including Los Angeles and Denver, vowed to pursue the question of how best to carry out reparations. They invited the Congress and the US government to follow their example.

"We see change" in the country, said Terrence Floyd at the Brooklyn unveiling of the bust honouring his brother George.

Terrence Floyd, who lives in New York, recently created a group called "We Are Floyd" to help "keep the change going," he told AFP.

"Because right now, it's not a moment. It's a movement."