The Emancipation Proclamation doesn’t mark the end of slavery in the United States.
It commemorates the day when Union soldiers announced the end of the Civil War in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865 -- two-and-a-half-years after the proclamation. The holiday has become exponentially more popular this year after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died in late May after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck for several minutes, prompting worldwide demonstrations calling for police reform and a broader reckoning with the way the United States treats its Black citizens.
Grand Forks celebrated the holiday for the first time in recent memory on Saturday. About 50 people showed up to the Empire Arts Center to hear a series of speeches, poetry recitals and drum music organized by the African Arts Arena, an area nonprofit that promotes the cultural heritage of African immigrants.
“By law we were free, every right to go strive,” Alana Alexander said, reciting “The Importance of Juneteenth, Past and Present” by J.P. Haley. “But many didn’t listen to it, they just wanted our lives until June 19th, 1865.”
Shannelle Thompson, one of the celebration’s organizers, read Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird,” a poem about a metaphorical bird who sings of freedom.
“There have been many years of my life ... where I felt caged,” Thompson said. “So for the longest time I didn’t have a voice. I didn’t do anything to speak out against the racism that I experienced or even the violence. I just sat there and I took it until -- you become tired of being beat down, consistently, and you decide: I’m going to sing. I’m going to fight back. I’m going to do something.”
Bret Weber, a white Grand Forks City Council member, argued that the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t “grant” freedom to Black people in the United States.
“Freedom is not something that can be granted,” Weber said. “Freedom and equality are only things that can be taken away. If anything, what Lincoln was doing was announcing the end of the unjust enslavement, not a granting of freedom. People of color understand that. Everyone needs to learn this.”
The celebration on Saturday came three days after North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum proclaimed Friday -- the actual anniversary of the Galveston announcement -- Juneteenth Celebration Day statewide. The proclamation doesn’t mean the day is a holiday per se because it only applies to June 19 of this year, but Tim Mathern, a Fargo-area state senator, said he plans to propose a bill in the next legislative session that would make Juneteenth a North Dakota holiday.
North Dakota is one of three states that does not formally recognize Juneteenth in that way. The other two are South Dakota and Hawaii.