For more than 150 years, Juneteenth has symbolized the end of slavery and the promise of new civil rights. Today’s commemoration, though, comes amid protests about systemic racism and recent police violence, as well as longstanding racial health disparities highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic.
The irony is not lost on Sheri Neale, co-founder of the Maroon Arts Group nonprofit, which is co-hosting a Juneteenth event with creative agency Artfluential on Saturday at the MPACC BoxPark in the King-Lincoln District of Columbus.
"I wanted to call it, ‘What Freedom? A Juneteenth Celebration,’" said Neale, 41, of King-Lincoln, which also is called Bronzeville, the former name of the historic, African American neighborhood on the Near East Side.
"I just know that I’m not free. I don’t have the same rights and the same liberties as other, non-Black Americans. … Nobody owns me, physically, but there are still a lot of chains."
For some African American organizations, artists and activists in Columbus, Juneteenth is complicated. There is joy in celebrating culture and community, but sadness about the enduring legacy of slavery.
Despite that duality, there is renewed energy surrounding the holiday this year, even amid the pandemic.
There will be food, music, kids’ activities and signs that people can take with messages of solidarity ("Black Lives Matter," "People Over Property"). But the gathering is primarily educational, Neale said, and organizers will hand out information about how to support the Black community.
They also will share the history of Juneteenth.
"(We’re) nothing without our ancestors," Neale said. "So we have to recognize that piece of it, too."
Juneteenth is officially June 19, and originally celebrates June 19, 1865. That’s the date when Union Gen. Gordon Granger read federal orders in Galveston, Texas, informing enslaved people in Texas that they already were free — more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was enacted in January 1863.
"The two-and-a-half-year lapse between emancipation and freedom has always struck me as indicative of Black people's relationship with America," said writer and poet Scott Woods, who owns Streetlight Guild, an arts organization on the Near East Side. "It's a precarious relationship with America. … You can walk across America in six months. It didn't happen because knowledge could not be had. The conditions of Juneteenth happened because America did not have the will to change its ways. And that lack of will continues right now."
In Columbus, for more than 20 years, the annual Juneteenth Ohio Festival drew more than 100,000 people to Franklin Park on the Near East Side. But after the shooting of a child during the celebration in 2013, the festival was relocated to Downtown’s Genoa Park.
Organizer Mustafaa Shabazz said the festival has been on hiatus since 2015 due to a $21,000 unpaid police bill. He said he needs help raising the money so he can resume the festival in 2021.
Since then, the city has invested in new celebrations, such as the African American Cultural Festival in the King-Lincoln District.
Currently, 47 states — including Ohio — recognize Juneteenth, but the day has received newfound attention nationally, as activists continue to push for it to be recognized as a federal holiday and some companies offer employees a paid day off.
If a law is passed, that momentum could trickle down to Columbus, said Woods, 49, of the East Side.
"The support would materialize," he said. "All of a sudden, we'd have a Juneteenth line item in the budget."
But this Juneteenth, with no central festival in the city, a number of organizations and businesses are finding their own ways to celebrate.
The King Arts Complex will have a brief festival from noon to 3 p.m. Friday. The festival also will kick off a campaign, "The HeART of Protest," which will last 46 non-consecutive days in honor of the age of George Floyd, a Black man who died in May after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. (The officer has been charged with second-degree murder.)
The venue and participating organizations, including the Lincoln Theatre and the Columbus Museum of Art, will produce art about Black America, which will be captured by photo and video as part of the campaign.
According to composer, educator and recording artist Mark Lomax II, art has always been an effective way for African Americans to express their social and political reality.
"Prior to colonialism, there was no such thing as art for the sake of art," said Lomax, 41, of the Northeast Side. "If you played a drum, there was a purpose for playing that drum. If you created a mask, there was a purpose for that mask. And we carried that over with us. So, in this current moment, if we have a groundswell of artists who are focused on telling these stories, it really does elevate the agency of our people to see ourselves as not only human, but as free and liberated."
For some activists, protest is a key part of observing Juneteenth. The Black, Queer & Intersectional Collective and the Columbus Freedom Coalition will host a rally at Mayor Andrew J. Ginther’s house to speak out against police violence at 8 a.m. Saturday.
"This is a political holiday, and we can't forget that this is about Black liberation," BQIC member Dkeama Alexis said. "It’s also Pride month. June 2020 has been a month of uprisings led by Black people, but specifically Black, queer and trans people."
In recognition of both Pride and Juneteenth, Black, Out & Proud is hosting a march at 6 p.m. Friday, beginning at the Columbus Division of Police headquarters Downtown.
At the same time, on the East Side, there will be a Juneteenth Community Event hosted by the Phenix Banquet Center. Co-owner Yemi Ogungbadero said she was inspired by the "tiredness, anger and grief" she was witnessing in the Black community. Attendees will be able to relax, enjoying food and live music.
"I want one single thing," Ogungbadero said of the event. "(I want us) to love on one another. … We will continue with the movement. We're continuing the fight. We're just taking a second to take a breath."