Juneteenth in Athens: A Day for Celebration, Protest and Reflection

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Juneteenth was a busy day in Athens. Celebrations kicked off at noon at the steps of the Athens County Courthouse where a group of community members staged a peaceful demonstration. Later on, on the same steps, a group of about a hundred students and supporters held up signs in a joint Juneteenth-Black Lives Matter protest and discussion. And before the day’s end, families gathered for a barbecue. At every event participants wore masks and made efforts to practice physical distancing.

Nevertheless, before the current social unrest since George Floyd was killed while in police custody, many Americans say they had never heard about Juneteenth.

In a group of about 80 students gathered for the celebration in a big circle, sitting on the grass at Ohio University’s College Green area, the question was asked: How many of you knew of Juneteenth before the protest? A few hands up. How many of you just learned about it since the protests? Most hands up.

Friday’s Juneteenth demonstration at the court steps in uptown set off the day of pride and celebration in Athens. (Courtesy Sly Mata)

Brandi Baker, one of the people celebrating the day with her daughter said, “I feel the American education system has done a lot to try to obliterate that type of history. It’s been glossed over in the school district and the school systems and sort of forgotten generationally, so I’m really happy that people with all of the civil unrest are paying more attention.”

Sly Mata, an African American born and raised in Arizona and now living in Athens, says in his household Juneteenth has always been a sacred holiday. “It’s very similar to what we are doing here: barbecuing, fun, games; really honoring our past but being hopeful to the future.”

Black students at the Athens courthouse steps during Juneteenth-Black Lives Matter protest. (Claudia Cisneros | WOUB)

So What IS Juneteenth?
Juneteenth is the combination of the words June and nineteenth and also known as Black Independence Day, since on the 4th of July of 1776 African Americans were still not free. It is also commonly referred to as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day, or Emancipation Day

Juneteenth is not the day enslaved people in America were liberated. Their liberation was declared in 1863 when President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect for all states, including the ones still in rebellion.

But Texas remained a slave state for two more years until Union General Gordon Granger marched into Galveston bringing news of the end of the Civil War and that slavery had been outlawed. That happened June 19, 1865, and it is the day that went into history as Juneteenth; a day for celebration for Blacks in America.

Students in Athens, Ohio celebrated Juneteenth by supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. (Claudia Cisneros | WOUB)

Zoe Miller was one of the organizers for the student-led Juneteenth-Black Lives Matter protest summoned for this day at the courthouse steps; where over 100 students and families showed up for support.

“Today is Juneteenth is the day for independence for Black people and it’s really terrible that we still have to be protesting right now. But I think it will still be a great day for celebrations as well.”

Miller, a native of Athens says, while Athens county and Ohio University are both predominantly White, there is a history of progressive activism.

“I think Athens as a township is a bubble. We like to promote antiracism here but once you get out of the Athens township you’ll see a lot more racism.”

A Moment of Racial Tension
Less than an hour into the rally in uptown Athens, a red pick up truck stops at the red light by the courthouse, where the protestors stood. The driver shows the middle finger to the people chanting.

For the next seconds, while the red light lasts, tension grows. Deja Brown, a young Black woman holding a sign on the street approaches the truck within social distance, chanting nonstop “Black Lives Matter!” while the White man keeps flying his finger and the crowd chants along loudly “Black Lives Matter!!” The light turns green and he swings a last finger one more time before departing.

“This is what racism feels like everyday,” says Deja Brown as she catches her breath. “If you don’t agree with us you don’t have to, but you don’t have to be disrespectful.” She excuses herself for being angry. Still shaken she adds, “flipping the finger, that means deep down you are a racist. I will say go f* yourself. We don’t do nothing. We don’t do nothing to no one, that’s why I am mad.”

Brooklyn Stallworth, one of the protest organizers holds a sign on Court St. and Washington St., uptown Athens. (Claudia Cisneros | WOUB)

Brooklyn Stallworth, the other organizer of the protest said this is the 5th protest in Athens for the Black Lives Matter movement and that they will continue to take on the streets “to keep spreading awareness to what’s going on in this country.”

Miller thinks this is especially important in small towns such as Athens. Small and rural towns protests have been making a difference along the current civil unrest.

“I think small towns are the ones that need their minds changed the most. They’re usually the ones that don’t believe that this is a civil rights issue, a human rights issue,” says Zoe, “and I think small towns doing this, we need to support that.”

Reflecting on Black, Brown and White
It’s 3:30 and most of the young people participating in the protest have moved to College Green area, on Ohio University grounds. They have sat down on the ground forming a large circle of about eighty people.

The setting is calm and the trees provide a soothing and refreshing shadow from the heat. They are sharing personal experiences on discrimination; sharing their worries and their hopes. They also talk about White privilege and responsibility.

The group is mostly White, some Brown and a few Black. They are also mostly students, although a few adults accompany them with their small children. One of the kids says he learned about Juneteenth from a Netflix series he has recently watched during the pandemic, ‘Atlanta.’

White families and allies joined the Juneteenth-Black Lives Matter protest in uptown Athens. [Claudia Cisneros | WOUB].

There is a clear sense of community within the group. Even though many have just met each other during the protests. It’s the protest that unites them, the values they share, the fight against racism and the pledge to contribute to a change.

Ke Shawn, a self-identified biracial student who has been moderating the group, says to the students before they leave, “don’t end it here. White silence is violence. Things need to change and they will because of people like you.”

Discussions about White privilege and what is to be an ally for racial justice where discussed during the Juneteenth-Black Lives Matter events in Athens, Ohio. [Claudia Cisneros | WOUB].
Expanding the Conversation

Baker says Juneteenth is something that has been taught in the Black community for a long time and that she’s glad to see it “gaining more national spotlight.” She recalls a museum visit in Marietta two years ago with her daughter and other fourth graders,  where the museum instructor told the students slaves were treated well and had food and housing.

“I was very surprised and appalled that someone in 2018 will have the audacity to teach slavery in that way; not being truthful and honest on the impact it had on African Americans. I think we have a lot of work to do by being honest first.”

Mata also says he is happy to see how people now are starting to ask questions about Juneteenth, “hopefully with Juneteenth we’ll understand systematic oppression has existed for years. And actually that is not that long ago, 150 years ago. That’s two generations.”

And only now Juneteenth is coming into the cultural and social spotlight in the United States. Since the long sustained protests set off by George Floyd’s killing, Juneteenth has been proclaimed a holiday in several U.S. cities, such as Washington DC, Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Virginia, Kansas, Illinois and New York, according to CNN.

New York has also created a commission to review and record the history of systemic racial discrimination, “with an emphasis on housing, criminal justice, environmental racism and public health,” according to the city’s press release.

Several universities, like Harvard, Columbia, Drake, Georgetown and University of Virginia closed for Juneteenth holiday and Harvard provided their faculty and staff a full day of paid time.

A minute of silence during the Juneteenth-Black Lives Matter protest to remember all victims of systemic racism and police brutality in the U.S. [Claudia Cisneros | WOUB].
In 2018, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution designating June 19 as “Juneteenth Independence Day,” but it has yet to reach the House. There is currently an online petition advocating for Juneteenth to become a national holiday.

In the State of Ohio, a 2009 statute recognizes June 19 as ‘Juneteenth National Freedom Day’; and residents of Gallipolis, Ohio, celebrate their own annual event since 1865, becoming the longest-running commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States.

You can find more information on Juneteenth historical and current events here.