After fighting for years to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, 93-year-old north Texan Opal Lee achieved her goal last week when President Joe Biden signed Senate Bill S 475, making Juneteenth the 11th federal holiday recognized in the United States.
In cities and communities all across the nation, Juneteenth has been celebrated since June 19, 1865, the day when black slaves in Galveston reportedly learned they were free, three years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation following the Civil War.
While some historians argue that the slaves were already aware of their freedom and were held against their will by slave owners, the day remains one to be revered and remembered by persons of all races and creeds.
In Cleveland, this year’s Juneteenth celebration included a parade and the crowning of a king and queen – Kendrae Lewis and Jastoria Tarpley, both students at Cleveland High School. The parade on Saturday was held in downtown Cleveland and traveled to Wiley Park where activities continued.
Cleveland Councilman Danny Lee said this year’s Juneteenth celebration had significant meaning as it is now a federal holiday.
“It makes me proud. I know people who came before me and the adversity they went through, so to have a day in honor of our freedom and opportunities is just great,” he said.
Marval Harris said her thoughts on Saturday were of her ancestors, who fought long and hard as slaves.
“I was so glad to have heard about the senior citizen in her 90s who kept at it until she finally got the holiday approved. I am so happy to know that blacks are moving up in this world that we live in,” she said.
Juneteenth celebrations have been held in Cleveland for many years and were organized by the late Esther Johnson who died recently. In her absence, several other people in the community have picked up the mantle to organize a parade and celebration. In years past, the parade was held along city streets in the predominantly black community of Cleveland known as Pct. 20. This year, the parade was more visible as it was held along Houston Street in downtown Cleveland.
Willie Carter, a member of the Cleveland ISD School Board, had nothing but praise for the community volunteers for organizing this year’s event.
“I think they did an excellent job of putting it all together. They started making their plans several months ago, long before it was made a federal holiday. The timing of the federal declaration means something to us,” he said. “When it comes to Cleveland, we have always been a close-knit community anyway. Color doesn’t matter much to the people in Cleveland. When one hurts, we all hurt, but for Congress to finally realize they needed to do this (creating the federal holiday), we are truly pleased. This is a great day.”
Carter said he is already looking forward to next year’s Juneteenth celebration.
“This little crowd you see here this year, I promise you it will be much larger next year,” he said.