FARGO — North Dakota's first historic celebration of Juneteenth is more than a state holiday for Faith Shields-Dixon. June 19 is now an official reminder of the country’s victory over enslavement of African Americans.

Shields-Dixon said it was only months ago when North Dakota was “on the other side” in not recognizing Juneteenth.

“Now we are on this side of it, and I’m super excited that it was able to get done,” said Shields-Dixon, a Black Lives Matter of Fargo-Moorhead organizer. “Juneteenth matters because our country cannot afford to repeat its past sins and generated beliefs, policies and systems that were discriminatory, immoral and inhumane."

Faith Dixon leading the chanting on Juneteenth during protest at Fargo City Hall. C.S. Hagen / The Forum
Faith Dixon leading the chanting on Juneteenth during protest at Fargo City Hall. C.S. Hagen / The Forum

“This celebration, just as St. Paddy’s Day and July 4, reminds our country where we have been and where we came from, and we celebrate that. So we also want to celebrate this event, and this was our country’s victory,” Shields-Dixon said.

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North Dakota was one of three states, along with South Dakota and Hawaii, that did not recognize Juneteenth as a holiday. This last legislative session, Fargo Democrat Sen. Tim Mathern introduced the Juneteenth bill alongside his longtime Republican colleague Sen. Ray Holmberg, of Grand Forks.

At the time, Mathern said he wasn't aware of Juneteenth until last summer, when he participated in protest marches after George Floyd's death.

Juneteenth commemorates the arrival of Union forces in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, where they informed enslaved people of the end of the Civil War about their new freedom. Although President Abraham Lincoln outlawed slavery with his Emancipation Proclamation two-and-a-half years prior, many people in Southern and border states remained enslaved as the war continued.

OneFargo organizer Wess Philome addressed about 200 protesters in downtown Fargo on Sunday, April 11. C.S. Hagen / The Forum
OneFargo organizer Wess Philome addressed about 200 protesters in downtown Fargo on Sunday, April 11. C.S. Hagen / The Forum

Wess Philome, an organizer with racial justice organization OneFargo, said the day is important to him because it makes him feel part of the community.

“I’m looking forward to the entire day. There’s a feeling of belonging that comes with seeing yourself represented in your community, no matter how small it is,” Philome said. “I’m just excited that North Dakota finally acknowledged Juneteenth, and I’d like to thank Sen. Mathern and the hard work he did for pushing that.”

It's a feeling that his history is being recognized, and “I’m ready to take those vibrations in,” Philome said.

“When you talk about something like Juneteenth, or when you talk about what is going on with critical race theory in America, and America is still fighting really hard to not have the conversation that needs to be had about what is slavery and history and racism in America, it’s not something that is easy for people to confront. But when you talk about Juneteenth, that acknowledges that it was real for us, it happened, and on this day we were finally, in some kind of way, set free.”

Although Philome and Shields-Dixon know there remains much more work to be done to achieve real equality for people from all races in the United States, Shields-Dixon said the holiday is a step in the right direction.

“This chain that was broken was one that our country was victorious over, and it really could have demolished and threatened to destroy the people of color, but it did not. I’m just happy to say that we want to celebrate it, and we are one in spirit and one in humanity, and this is just one step to help break those chains and continue to break them through education and empowerment,” she said.