On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers delivered the news to enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, that they were free. It was more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
The day, now known as Juneteenth, has been celebrated within the Black community for decades, but it wasn’t necessarily well known.
“I did not grow up on it. I had heard about it,” said Larnette Slade, a volunteer coordinator with It Takes a Village AMSA Edition, an organization that has coordinated Juneteenth celebrations for the past six years. That is a common story when it comes to Juneteenth — people don’t know about it because it hasn’t been a part of their education growing up.
Ann Okwuwolu wants to make sure that changes.
Okwuwolu has organized a Juneteenth celebration for the past six years. The event started at New Holly — the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) complex where she lives — and has grown to encompass new people, organizations and participants. It is now hosted in Othello Park and incorporates a rich array of services, educational opportunities and culturally affirming programming.
The event grew out of a fundamental question: how does the Black community affirm its young people when they aren’t taught their history in school?
“I wanted to have representation for my daughter,” Okwuwolu said.
There is “representation” and being “represented.” Okwuwolu wanted the latter. The first Juneteenth that she coordinated was eye-opening, she said.
“We didn’t even know it was going to go any further than what it has,” Okwuwolu said. “It’s so much bigger than us, at this point.”
Okwuwolu’s Juneteenth includes activities for children so that they can learn their history. It incorporates free food for adults and health screenings to make sure they have access to life-prolonging health care. It aims to bring people to job placement organizations and to ensure that, on the day that Black people celebrate their freedom from slavery, they can also access needed resources to improve their material lives.
Juneteenth is a critical day for Black African Americans, Okwuwolu said.
Juneteenth is hardly a new celebration in Seattle. DeCharlene Williams was a pillar in Seattle’s community for decades. She was an entrepreneur who ran a beauty shop in the Central District and threw a Juneteenth celebration every year for more than 35 years. She was also Okwuwolu’s mentor.
“That’s who inspired me to do this,” Okwuwolu said.
“She didn’t get to see it become a federal holiday,” Okwuwolu said. “I know she’d be proud of that.”
The federal, state, county and city governments all chose to mark the day with a specific holiday in 2021. That was after the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Seattle city councilmembers voted to affirm Juneteenth as an official holiday on the same day that they made Indigenous People’s Day — rather than Columbus Day — official city holidays. The latter gave legitimacy to colonizer Christopher Columbus rather than the First Peoples.
The move was required to allow some non-union-represented city employees to have the day off and give a free parking day to other city residents, said Council President Debora Juarez, who is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet tribe.
“Although the city has already established Indigenous Peoples Day as a day of observance and legal holiday for city employees represented by the Coalition [of City Unions], legislation is required to expand this holiday to unrepresented city employees and establish a parking holiday,” Juarez said, according to the Seattle Times.
The City Council adopted Juneteenth as a holiday in December 2021. However, not all unions signed on at the time. The March decision ensured that nearly 90 percent of staff have the day off. King County also passed a law designating Juneteenth and Indigenous Peoples’ Day as holidays, as well as the federal government.
The recognition is one thing, Okwuwolu said, but it comes with drawbacks. She has been throwing a Juneteenth event for nearly six years, and DeCharlene was doing it decades before that. The official recognition has meant more organizations in the mix rather than more support for the events already happening.
“Now, since it’s a federal holiday and everybody knows about it, they’re doing their own Juneteenth,” Okwuwolu said. “What’s unfair about it is that they’re taking resources.”
Update: This article has been updated to reflect that the Emancipation Proclamation was signed on Jan. 1, 1863. The newspaper regrets the error.
Read more of the Jun 15-21, 2022 issue.