At Lincoln’s Juneteenth celebration, Michael Jackson’s music filled the air, kids ran around the grass blowing bubbles, friends and family greeted one another by touching elbows and the smell of tacos was in the air.
People filed into the green space behind the Indian Center in Lincoln on June 19 to celebrate the holiday, and vendor tents were set up along the tree line facing a small wooden stage in the middle.
Juneteenth, which is short for June 19th, is a holiday celebrating the liberation of slaves in America.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln student Jaylen Cook-Gibson of Lincoln organized the event. Once Cook-Gibson heard that the Malone community center planned to cancel their annual Junteenth event, she knew she needed to continue the celebration regardless of COVID-19.
“Juneteenth to me means a chance to learn about my Black history and to educate others,” Cook-Gibson said.
She encouraged everyone to educate themselves and to keep up with the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Get out and get a chance to educate yourself even if you are from a small town. It’s very important and easy to do,” Cook-Gibson said.
The event began with a prayer led by a local pastor. Everyone bowed their heads in unison, thanking God and honoring the struggle and freedom.
Marla Styles and Sharilyn Bullock, who are from Lincoln, took the stage and sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” sometimes referred to as the Black national anthem. This song is widely associated with the civil rights movement.
“Let us march on till victory is won,” Styles and Bullock sang.
Jeannette Eileen Jones, associate professor of history and ethnic studies at UNL, came to celebrate her ancestry and educate attendants on Juneteenth.
Jones was raised in Queens in New York City. Growing up she was never taught the history of Juneteenth. Instead, she attended community events at her local park. Juneteenth is not always taught in schools.
Although Juneteenth is not a federal holiday, 47 states including Nebraska have passed legislation recognizing it as a holiday or observance, according to the Congressional Research Service. South Dakota just joined that list. The history of Juneteenth goes back to Civil War times. On June 19, 1865, two months after the Civil War ended, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, where he announced new federal orders that the enslaved were free.
Jones, one of the speakers, discussed the history of slavery and the origins of Juneteenth.
“It is important to understand what a monumental thing freedom is. We can’t conceive of what it meant to not have ownership of your body,” Jones said.
Kiara Williams, a senior at UNL who is from Lincoln, came because she wanted to join her community. Williams is an administrator for CHANGE NOW, a group whose mission is to inspire everyone to take action to reverse systemic oppression and injustice.
“I love to see my community out here even with the pandemic. We are all making history,” Williams said.
Speaker and recent UNL graduate Temi Onayemi, who is from Chicago, spoke about the beauty and strength he sees in the Black community.
“Today is a celebration. Today gives us the opportunity to reflect on the strength, the beauty and the joy that exists within Black bodies in America,” Onayemi said.
Onayemi said he can’t refer to his heroes as slaves because it dismisses everything they were and aspired to be.
“The Europeans did not take slaves from Africa. They took kings, queens, politicians, scientists, poets, mathematicians, actors and dreamers from the land they called home,” Onayemi said.
Onayemi thanked those who came before him and admitted his struggles to see the beauty in his own skin.
“This skin is so beautiful. I wish that textbooks, the toys I played with, the shows I watched, or the kids I befriended would’ve told me how beautiful and strong my Black skin was,” Onayemi said.
The first celebration of Juneteenth took place in 1866 in Texas. Onayemi said that the Black community has progressed in this country since then.
“The fact that we can sit side by side with our white counterparts today without hatred in our hearts is proof that we are a forgiving, loving, peaceful, educated and wise people, ” Onayemi said.