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In my early years as a child in New York City, I didn’t know much about Juneteenth. I don’t even recall a discussion in my home. I did not know why people celebrated Juneteenth and I did not have a history or social studies class in school that mentioned it.

I remember at the age of 15, I had a neighbor who asked me this question: Do you know about the Emancipation Proclamation, and how it finally reached Texas and all slaves were freed? Of course, in my naïve state, I thought my neighbor didn’t know what he was talking about.

I thought, “I didn’t learn about this in elementary, middle or high school, so what does he know?”

Discovering Juneteenth

But of course, it nagged at me. So, I called one of my aunts who was a teacher and asked, “Have you ever heard of a June 19 celebration to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved people of African descent?”

To my surprise my aunt corroborated the history my neighbor had shared—and I was shocked. I had so many questions. I started asking my friends.

From everything I can recall from my youth, this was not a part of our early life learning and teaching. At the time, I felt a little relieved to know I was not the only young person in the dark about this significant moment in history—but it was also sad for me.

Finding Answers

I did not like this feeling, so it led me on a curious quest for knowledge. I can remember saying to myself, “If you want to learn about true history of black people, then you have to go to Harlem.” For me, Harlem was the “Black Mecca” of NYC and this is where I would find my answers.

At 16 years old, my curiosity led me on my first adventure to a church gathering at the great Abyssinian Baptist Church—it was my first encounter of a celebration of Juneteenth. There was no federal holiday back then. It was a church service with families and communities celebrating with food, music and reflection to appreciate the progress of African Americans.

Pride and Celebration

In NYC, many of the celebrations of Juneteenth took place in Harlem and Brooklyn, and I am thankful for those lived experiences. They taught me how to recognize the achievements of the Black community, while also reflecting on the past.

I can recall going to large events in local parks where there were festivals with residents and local businesses—they included music, art, poetry and spoken word performances, delicious food and activities like double-dutch. (While I was never very good at jump-roping, I excelled at the feasting aspects of these events.)

More importantly, it was a time for communities to feel proud in celebrating the historical event of 1865 in Galveston, which brought the news to Texas of the ending of slavery in the United States of America.

Sharing Awareness

When I started college, I joined the Sociology Club because of my desire to learn more. Being with like-minded students—who had the same curiosity to learn more about events like the Juneteenth history that was not taught in schools—was refreshing.

Each year I returned to Harlem to find small pockets of celebrations that quenched my soul and made me proud of my learning development and my heritage. In college, I can also recall participating in events with other students to plan celebrations and meet-ups on June 19.

My friends in college became my tribe. We were a small group but we were thrilled to bring awareness and educate our college community about this important part of history.

Exploring More Juneteenth History

I’ve always approached my life with learning at the center. I am not afraid to challenge myself with new experiences, and as I became an adult I embraced learning about the historical aspects of Juneteenth.

I can recall driving to visit my sister who was attending college in Buffalo—I would be on Interstate 87 and would schedule a visit at the North Star Underground Railroad Museum or the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center around June 19. It was part of my continued learning to reflect on this history, understand the experiences of African Americans and celebrate freedom.

What Juneteenth Means to Me Today

Now that I am in Colorado this will be my first Juneteenth outside of NYC. It was always important for me to live in a state where Juneteenth is an observed holiday. It allows me to feel pride and to continue to celebrate freedom for all.

Colorado legislation establishing Juneteenth as a state holiday

I’m happy that Colorado declared Juneteenth a state holiday last year. As we progress as a state I look forward to being part of a community where we create a better world for future generations.

Today, Juneteenth means a lot to me—it is a holiday that has a unique cultural and historical significance. It allows me to personally reflect on the struggle for freedom, dignity and human rights by African Americans.

A Joyous Celebration of Freedom

It is also a celebration for communities and families to join together to have fun, embrace our history and continue the traditions of self-determination. For my family and friends, this means small, intimate celebrations that take place in backyards where food is an integral element.

This year, my partner and I will be attending the Juneteenth celebration of Black joy and excellence in Longmont. It is our way of reflecting, celebrating and revitalizing our spirits within our new Colorado community.

As part of my continued learning, I would like to visit Galveston where there is a 5,000 square foot mural celebrating June 19, 1865. It is one of my favorite pieces of art and seeing it in person is now officially on my bucket list—I want to experience the historic connection to Galveston firsthand.

I’ll leave you now with a joyous photo of the mural, entitled “Absolute Equality.”

Happy Juneteenth, everyone!

Dancer Prescylia Mae, of Houston, performs during a dedication ceremony for the giant mural “Absolute Equality” in downtown Galveston, Texas, in 2021. Photo credit: Stuart Villanueva/The Galveston County Daily News, via The Associated Press
Dancer Prescylia Mae, of Houston, performs during a dedication ceremony for the giant mural “Absolute Equality” in downtown Galveston, Texas, in 2021. Photo credit: Stuart Villanueva/The Galveston County Daily News, via The Associated Press

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