As North Dakota and the U.S. codify it, Grand Forks is set to commemorate Juneteenth this weekend.

The African Arts Arena, a local nonprofit that works to promote African culture, is organizing a celebration of the holiday at 5 p.m. Saturday, June 19, at the Grand Cities Mall. The occasion marks the 156th anniversary of the end of legal slavery in Texas, and is sometimes referred to as Emancipation Day or Black Independence Day.

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The get-together at the mall is set to include speeches by community leaders, including Mayor Brandon Bochenski and City Council member Katie Dachtler, as well as poetry readings, music and food from Steers Somali Restaurant.

Grand Forks Air Force Base, Faith & Hope Christian Center, and UND have all hosted Juneteenth celebrations 20-plus years ago, but the one organized last year was the first in recent memory.

And this year’s could be the first held under the aegis of formal federal and state holidays. Gov. Doug Burgum signed in April a bipartisan bill that made Juneteenth a statewide ceremonial holiday and the U.S. Congress this week sent a similar bill to President Joe Biden’s desk that makes it a federal holiday, as well.

“It’s part of the U.S. history,” Hamzat Koriko, the arena’s executive artistic director and a Togolese immigrant, told the Herald. “For us, as new immigrants of African descent, it’s really important that we learn about our new community, which is the African American community, so that we can better understand and we can build a relationship with them.”

Koriko acknowledged the distinction between African immigrants like himself and African Americans, but indicated that the two are often lumped together.

“When I’m applying for a job or those kinds of things, they don’t ask me whether I’m an immigrant or not, they ask me whether I’m white or African American,” he said. “The reality is that, when we face an issue...we are seen as African Americans.”

While they were putting together last year’s Juneteenth celebration, Koriko and Shannelle Thompson, another organizer, said the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the worldwide demonstrations it provoked, made the cultural moment ripe, so to speak, to mark the holiday here. Koriko said people now are more willing to support minority events.

“That counts,” he said. “But other than that, I think we still have a long way to go to really see if those changes that we are seeing are really sustainable.”

History

Juneteenth marks the end of legal slavery nationwide. It commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers announced the end of the Civil War in Galveston, Texas.

Several North Dakota legislators pushed to name June 19 “Juneteenth National Freedom Day” more than a decade ago, but their resolution didn’t make it through the state legislature in Bismarck.

Gov. Doug Burgum declared June 19, 2020 “Juneteenth Celebration Day” across North Dakota, but his proclamation only applied to that day in that year. The bill he signed in April makes it a recurring annual holiday, and also makes North Dakota the third-to-last state to make the day a holiday. The remaining holdouts are South Dakota and Hawaii.