Darius Dotch chuckled in the midst of a Juneteenth performance last Saturday in St. Cloud. The onstage moment wasn't a mistake. He was re-enacting an 1865 letter from Jourdon Anderson, a Black man who escaped slavery in Tennessee, to his former master, who had wanted him to return to bondage. The actor and hip-hop artist lingered on a moment of droll poignancy.
"At the beginning of the letter he says, 'I'm glad that you haven't forgotten about ol' Jourdon and although you shot at me twice — although you twice tried to kill me — I'm glad you're still living,' " Dotch said. "The humor behind this, the cleverness and wit, is so great. It's that kind of thing you have to have in order to survive."
First celebrated on June 19, 1865, Juneteenth has grown in recognition in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests. The U.S. Senate voted unanimously Tuesday to make Juneteenth a federal holiday and the House voted 415-14 on Wednesday to pass the bill. President Biden signed it into law Thursday.
The day is already an official holiday in dozens of states and the District of Columbia, although not Minnesota. Hennepin County and the city of Minneapolis made it a paid holiday this year, following the lead of corporations such as Target, Best Buy and U.S. Bank.
Black people mark Juneteenth with recitations of historical texts, theater, poetry, dance, music and art. Some also commune through food and drink, parades and family games. The holiday is seen as one where Black people can be their authentic selves.
"African Americans in the Twin Cities often embrace Paul Laurence Dunbar's concept of wearing the mask," said author and Macalester College Prof. Duchess Harris, quoting a famous poem: " 'We wear the mask that grins and lies' — that's how we survive the workplace. Juneteenth, as a holiday, is an opportunity to put the mask down and wear your real face."
An order for freedom
The actual word Juneteenth is a portmanteau that blends "June" and "nineteenth" in honor of the day that the last Black people in America learned of their freedom from chattel slavery. Marching through Galveston, Texas, Union Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued an order that was read throughout the town that freedom had finally arrived for captives, nearly 2 ½ years after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.
"Juneteenth continued earlier traditions of emancipation celebrations, going back to the 1830s when the British formally abolished slavery," said John Wright, historian and retired University of Minnesota professor. "The oratory, the speeches and songs and artistic performances of various kinds all tap into a larger history and yearning."
Juneteenth observances have waxed and waned over the years, partly in response to conditions on the ground. There was jubilation around Juneteenth immediately after the Civil War. But as Jim Crow laws gradually stripped African Americans of their rights and lives, celebrations grew quieter. Martin Luther King Jr. planned the Poor People's Campaign on Juneteenth 1968 but was assassinated before he could participate. The march, however, carried on in his spirit.
In the Twin Cities, Juneteenth used to be celebrated with big gatherings, particularly along Wirth Parkway in Minneapolis and Golden Valley and in other parks. There was a Juneteenth Film Festival, curated and championed by the late photographer and filmmaker Dejunius Hughes, who founded the Twin Cities International Black Film Festival. The holiday often served as a bookend to Rondo Days, another celebration that arose from something lost, in this case, a thriving Black community wrecked by the creation of the interstate.
"When I first got to Minnesota in 1987, Juneteenth was huge," said Laverne McCartney Knighton, a Twin Cities cultural maven and Houston native. "It was bigger in the Twin Cities than in Texas. That may have been because folks here didn't take it for granted. But then it quieted down after a certain element started coming out and acting a fool."
The run-up to this year's observances in the Twin Cities has included events at parks, meetups and marches and an arts and culture program at Minnehaha Academy. On Saturday, there will be a 9 a.m. Freedom Walk at the West St. Paul Sports Complex by the Residents of Color Collective; a North Side community celebration from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Sanctuary Covenant Church (2018 Aldrich Av. N., Minneapolis); and dance, storytelling, a fashion show and soul food from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Midtown Global Market.
Juneteenth COVID-19 vaccination clinics take place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center (1301 N. 10th Av., Minneapolis) and from 1 to 5 p.m. at Allianz Field (400 N. Snelling Av., St. Paul).
"Health is freedom and freedom is health," said Verna Cornelia Price, co-founder of the Power of People Leadership Institute, which, with the local chapter of Black Nurses Rock, is sponsoring the clinic at Phyllis Wheatley. "When you take a look at the work of historical trauma, and what that trauma does to your body, to your health and spirit, it's alarming."
Price added that "higher stress, high blood pressure, heart disease are the costs of racism on our bodies. We're urging people who haven't been to come get vaccinated," she said. "And we're helping young people understand what modern day freedom, modern day emancipation means."
Although centered on Black freedom, Juneteenth is for everyone, said Macalester's Harris, whose books include "Justice for George Floyd." That's because the fate of American democracy is tied to the fate of Black people.
"Americans who're not Black should celebrate the fact that slavery is over," Harris said. "And if that isn't a win for everyone, then we have bigger questions. We are canaries in the coal mine. If things are going well for us, look over your shoulder."
The holiday is being observed in places like Burnsville and Apple Valley and in homes as well. And some Twin Cities companies are encouraging employees to observe the day with volunteer work.
After his performance in St. Cloud, Dotch was thronged by youngsters curious about his art and his music (he also delivered an original hip-hop song called "Soul Food"). He took it all in with pride.
"They were excited to see a Black man onstage doing something positive, and I was excited to be there with them," Dotch said. "Juneteenth represents a celebration of Blackness, of our perseverance as a race, and the fact that even though we may not always feel loved or welcomed, we're still here. We're Americans. We belong, and nobody can take that away from us."