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Juneteenth celebrations in Michigan as holiday gains national recognition

Former slaves celebrate in Austin on June 19, 1900.
Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

A series of parades, concerts, and other celebrations will take place this weekend to honor Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating freedom for enslaved people following the Civil War. 

The local commemorations coincide with national recognition of the holiday, which marks the day Union troops freed people who were kept in bondage in Texas two years after the end of the Civil War. President Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth the most recent federal holiday on Thursday. 

Juneteenth has been celebrated by formerly enslaved people and their decendents for generations, but gained national attention amid growing focus on issues such as racial bias in policing, segregation in public education, and reparations to the descendents of formerly enslaved people. 

Erica Hill is the Deputy Director of the Civil Rights, Inclusion, and Opportunity for the City of Detroit and helped organize a series of virtual and outdoor events in Detroit, which launched with a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation on Wednesday. Some of the events planned over the next week will address the opportunities afforded to formerly enslaved people by the city. 

“Many of our ancestors came from the South after slavery,” Hill said, in reference to what historians call the “Great Migration” of formerly enslaved people from Southern states to Northern ones in search of economic opportunity and social mobility. “ Detroit was [also] a stop on the Underground Railroad, and so it is a vehicle for freedom for many African Americans that live in Detroit and in the country, for that matter."

Hill said the various events will honor hard-won freedoms, but also taking stock of the present moment. 

"We want to talk about how Juneteenth relates to freedom for us today,” she said. “And we wanted to also talk about how we achieve that freedom even in 2021."

Several virtual panel discussions will consider the challenges to building wealth across generations in Black families, and how sexism holds Black women back. 

Another slate of events is planned in Flint, which include a parade, a showcase of Black vendors, and a Gospel festival. The city became the first in Michigan to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday. 

“We will honor our ancestors, highlight our heritage, celebrate our community all weekend and rejoice in our solidarity,” April Cook-Hawkins, an organizer for the Juneteenth festivities in Flint said in a statement. 

“The City of Flint is proud to have been a leader in the fight to make Juneteenth an officially recognized holiday,” Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley said in a statement. “Today, President Biden is stepping up to ensure our entire country memorializes this day and the end of slavery by declaring Juneteenth a federal holiday. Our country still has lots of work to do to truly ensure liberty and justice for all, but seeing our country follow our lead to give Juneteenth the respect it deserves gives me hope for better tomorrows.” 

Juneteenth festivals and celebrations are also planned in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and Muskegon, among other areas. A solidarity march is planned for Portage.

Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
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