Thousands of people across the St. Louis region gathered Friday to commemorate Juneteenth, the day when the last enslaved people in the United States learned they were free.
But the day of celebration reflected the sadness of Black Americans who still yearn for equality more than 150 years after the Civil War ended — and their hope that a renewed struggle will lead to lasting change.
“Juneteenth exists because some truth that was hidden was finally uncovered, and it's a celebration of that truth being liberated,” said the Rev. Michelle Higgins, senior pastor of St. John’s United Church of Christ.
The June 19 celebrations of the former enslaved people have been continued by generations of Black Americans. But they have taken on added significance this year.
Since a police officer killed George Floyd in Minneapolis in late March, people of all races have taken to the streets to demand that police stop killing Black people and that the nation make good on its long-unfulfilled promise of equality.
“Those uprisings are a recognition of a truth that has not been cut and we are not covering up the truth that has always been in front of us,” said Higgins, who led a “people’s rally” Friday morning at her church.
At the church, the Rev. Starksy Wilson read a statement from African American theologians who want to reaffirm the role of the Black church in the struggle for justice and equality.
Afterward, Higgins and other members of Action St. Louis led a march from the Old County Courthouse to St. Louis City Hall. Some protesters chanted for justice while others hung a large banner from the top of a nearby parking garage that called for city officials to defund the police department and invest in the futures of Black transgender people.
Action St. Louis co-founder Kayla Reed and others demanded that the city close the workhouse and that Missouri expand Medicaid.
But the Juneteenth events were not somber. Many people gathered on Tucker Boulevard between City Hall and the downtown jail for a celebration arranged by Expect Us — to dance and enjoy the day.
“This is just a moment for us. Black people, I need you to enjoy today,” said activist LaShell Eikerenkoetter, better known as Ohun Ashe. “You deserve to enjoy this day, every day. This is so exciting, there’s such good energy.”
Activists did not let the celebratory mood distract from their message, however. Some attendees danced holding “Defund the Police” and other protest signs. The crowd painted “Reparations” in yellow on the road, in a location that can be seen from Mayor Lyda Krewson’s office in Room 200 of City Hall.
Earlier in the day the Board of Aldermen, which usually meets at City Hall, unanimously adopted a resolution asking the city’s personnel department to make Juneteenth an official holiday. Members of the Black Caucus called its adoption by the majority-white board significant. Mayor Lyda Krewson on Thursday officially made the request to the personnel director.
People also gathered in East St. Louis to celebrate Juneteenth and note the nation’s continuing need to ensure racial justice and equality.
“This celebration is also a reminder of the work we have to do because our lives should matter in this country,” East St. Louis resident Stephanie Taylor told the Belleville News Democrat.
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