Still rising: Juneteenth celebration takes extra meaning in midst of civil unrest
Bloomington-Normal NAACP President and Illinois State alumna Linda Foster, M.S.W. ’16, has been at the forefront of local protests condemning police brutality that have arisen in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
“We as African Americans, Blacks, have been treated unfairly for over 400 years,” said Foster, who is also a retiree from Illinois State. “But today is a new day. And we are saying that there are issues going on in the law enforcement arena that we need to correct, that we need to refute, and that we need to have a say in how policies and procedures are put in place.”
This weekend she will engage the community in a different way as an organizer of the 2020 Bloomington-Normal Black History Project Juneteenth Celebration. The theme of the event was chosen months before protests of Floyd’s death expanded from Minneapolis to every state in the country but is especially resonant in the light of current events.
“The theme is ‘Still We Rise,’” said NAACP Second Vice President and McLean County Museum of History Bloomington-Normal Black History Project Coordinator Willie Holton Halbert. “Even though we were freed, June 19, 1865, we still deal with racial disparity such as racism, injustice within our education, health, housing, economic issues, the criminal justice system, and the list goes on. We are still rising and standing up for true freedom.”
Holton Halbert said the event, set to be held virtually on Saturday, June 20, at 1 p.m., is a way for the community to come together and celebrate the emancipation of Blacks. The headline speech, “From Then to Now,” will be presented by Illinois State University Professor Emeritus Dr. Charles Morris and his wife, Dr. Jeanne Morris. Even though Juneteenth has been celebrated for over 150 years, its adoption as a widely recognized holiday is a recent phenomenon.
“It is important for us to continue this celebration, because if you asked someone, ‘What is Juneteenth?’ many people couldn’t tell you that it is a commemoration of the ending of slavery,” said Holton Halbert, who also serves as the chairperson for the event.
Dr. Touré Reed, professor of history, explains that contrary to popular belief, the Emancipation Proclamation did not immediately free all enslaved people in the United States. Rather, they were freed incrementally as the Union retook territory from the Confederacy during the Civil War. Texas was one of the last states to free their slaves, due in large part to its relatively remote location and the small number of Union troops occupying the state after the war. The enslaved people of Texas didn’t know they were free until Union Gen. Gordon Granger publicly read the emancipation order in Galveston on June 19, 1865, months after the war had officially ended. Black communities in Texas celebrated June 19 as their day of liberation from that point forward.
“Instead of taking it negatively that it took over two years for them to know, they took it positively by bringing the community together to celebrate they were free,” Holton Halbert said.
Reed said he didn’t become aware of Juneteenth until he was living in New Orleans in the early-’90s. Reed explains that the reason for Juneteenth’s slow national adoption lies in its beginnings as a regional holiday in Texas.
“The history of the abolition of slavery wrought by the Civil War and inspired at least in part by the Emancipation Proclamation varies from region to region,” Reed said. “The functional equivalent of Juneteenth happened much earlier for South Carolina or Georgia, for example, than it happened for Texas. So it is quite logical, and far from nefarious, that Juneteenth was not a national phenomenon because it celebrated something that was uniquely local.”
It took over 100 years for the efforts of Black civic leaders in Texas to lead to Juneteenth’s recognition as a state holiday in 1980. They then turned their attention toward national recognition, sending representatives across the country to campaign for the date to be celebrated in those communities. Today, 47 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth as either a state or ceremonial holiday.
Activists are gathering more support as they make the case to Congress to recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday. According to Reed, the desire for an alternative Independence Day for Black Americans has helped Juneteenth’s case for broader recognition.
“One of the more noble and logical arguments (for Juneteenth’s nationwide adoption) is that since Blacks in Texas would have been the last to learn about the Emancipation Proclamation, one could take the position that Juneteenth, by extension, would reflect the histories of all Black Americans,” he said.
Illinois officially recognized Juneteenth in 2003. The Bloomington-Normal Black History Project held its first Juneteenth celebration 10 years prior in 1993. Even though the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic put this year’s event in doubt, organizers felt the current climate made cancellation an impossibility.
“We just relaunched this celebration in 2019 and didn’t want to stop the momentum,” Holton Halbert said. “With everything going on, we made the decision to go virtual.”
Foster is proud to be on the frontlines as a Bloomington-Normal civic leader and looks forward to working with law enforcement agencies to build mutual trust. She points to the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police recent release of 10 shared principles for how officers should interact with the public as a strong starting point for reform.
“The number one principle is to value life,” she said. “And when you get all the way to number 10, it is about how you can de-escalate a situation. Whatever you can do to cause the least amount of harm and come to a positive resolution … use those kinds of tactics.”
The 2020 Bloomington-Normal Black History Project Juneteenth Celebration is sponsored by the McLean County Museum of History Bloomington-Normal Black History Project and co-sponsored by 100 Black Men, Willie Brown, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc., NAACP, Not in Our Town, and Willie Holton Halbert. To learn more, visit its website.