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Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery

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Lisa Dunlap Photo Helen Wakefield, shown in February during Black History Month.

Juneteenth comes this year at a time when the nation is reacting to many incidents of police violence that have killed black people and when Black Lives Matter protests have been occurring worldwide as a result.

For many years, a public gathering in Roswell to talk about June 19, 1865 was held by members of a local Black History Committee and relatives of the founders of Blackdom, an African American community that existed from 1901 to the late 1920s about 20 miles south of Roswell.

June 19, 1865, is the day when slaves in Texas, the last Confederate-controlled state, finally received word from Union Army soldiers that they had been freed — freed two and half years earlier by the Emancipation Proclamation that had taken effect Jan. 1, 1863, and had been signed by President Abraham Lincoln.

This year, a public Juneteenth event for the Roswell area has not been announced. People involved in prior years’ ceremonies have said that family circumstances have led them to choose not to hold a commemoration this year.

Juneteenth events are scheduled today for Albuquerque and Las Vegas, and numerous online events and programs are occurring, including a series of talks organized by the New Mexico Black History Organizing Committee, based in Albuquerque (www.nmblackhistorymonth.com). A Black Lives Matter rally is also planned for Carlsbad tonight at the courthouse.

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“I think it is important because history has to be told,” said Helen Wakefield of Roswell about Juneteenth. She once was a board officer of the Juneteenth Nebraska committee, and this year she organized a local Black History Month event.

Several Chaves County residents were given an opportunity to talk about Juneteenth.

Wakefield said she thinks the commemoration is important because the past cannot be overcome until it is faced.

“Until we, as a people, as a totality, bring to light what the truths are, not the watered down version, but what the truths are,” she said, “we will not be able to come to the table and discuss how we move forward.”

 

Juneteenth’s growing prominence

According to the Smithsonian Institution, Juneteenth has been celebrated by some communities and some groups every year since 1865.

But it began to gain national prominence only recently. A history by the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation indicates that Congress passed a resolution in 1997 declaring Juneteenth Independence Day in the United States each year on June 19.

By 2017, 45 states and the District of Columbia had passed legislation recognizing the day. In 2006, New Mexico became the 19th state in the nation to declare it a state holiday.

A person instrumental in the passage of the 1997 federal legislation, Rev. Ronald V. Myers, M.D., also started the National Day of Reconciliation and Healing from the Legacy of Enslavement in 2000. That occurs June 18.

Several other commemorations related to Juneteenth have been established, including the National Juneteenth Maafa Memorial Wreath Laying Ceremony. (Maafa is a Swahili term meaning “terrible occurrence” and refers to the 400 years of human trafficking that enslaved an estimated 17 million black people.)

“We used to go to the courthouse and pray on the courthouse steps,” said Wakefield about how the Nebraska group commemorated the day.

She added that awareness and educational programs were held throughout the year and that events began early in the week of Juneteenth.

Since 2000, many people have sought for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday, an effort that has gained momentum in recent weeks following the May 25 homicide of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. That incident sparked the global Black Lives Matter rallies, including a few that have occurred in downtown Roswell.

 

More than a celebration

Wakefield, a youth transition specialist for the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, said that Juneteenth is about more than just one day and more than about singing and dancing.

She sees it as a way to “feed the children” and the community with information about slavery and its consequences to millions of people, a message she said that all people try to avoid at times.

Dr. Myers, the man who helped create a national Juneteenth movement, she said, would educate people about the Middle Passage, when black people were chained aboard ships in cramped and unhygienic quarters and transported across the ocean.

She also said Juneteenth has become a time to recognize social justice champions and community volunteers.

Juneteenth Nebraska used to do that by creating an annual honor in which the current recipient nominated the next year’s honoree. A battered lantern symbolizing the one carried by Harriet Tubman was given to award recipients.

Wakefield said the lantern commemorated the “blood, sweat and tears” that have been required for black people to achieve freedom and work toward equality.