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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Juneteenth is a now a federal holiday, but Spokane has a long history with the emancipation celebration

From left, Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and members of the Congressional Black Caucus celebrate the passage of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. It creates a new federal holiday to commemorate June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people after the Civil War.  (J. Scott Applewhite)
By Amber D. Dodd Community Journalism Fund

For the first time this year, America will celebrate Juneteenth as a federal holiday. It’s an official holiday in Washington, too, thanks to a bill passed by the Legislature in April.

But for Spokane area activists, Juneteeth is a long-running celebration of the day in 1865 when news of the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached Galveston, Texas, and the last enslaved African Americans learned they had been freed two years earlier by President Abraham Lincoln.

One hundred and fifty-six years later, members of the Senate were in unanimous support of the Juneteenth bill. The House passed it 415-14, and President Joe Biden signed the bill Thursday morning.

It is the first new legal public holiday since Ronald Reagan signed Martin Luther King Jr. Day into law in 1983. Though signed as a nationally recognized holiday this week, the Washington state Legislature passed House Bill 1016 in April to recognize Juneteenth. Rep. Melanie Morgan, D-Parkland, introduced the bill at the beginning of the session. It received a 47-1 vote.

Though the bill’s passage was cemented in early spring, Washington activists have been working to get Juneteenth acknowledged for years. The Inland Northwest Juneteenth Coalition co-founder and chairman Alan Jones sees the bill passage as a simple example of striking while the iron is hot. He marks 2020’s racial climate as a stepping stone to acknowledge Black American history. Buzz around the holiday has increased its exposure nationally. In Spokane, Juneteeth has been a celebration for a decade.

“Some people think this is just a fad,” Jones said. “The key is to jump on that fad and ride that wave. No one wanted to be on the other side of the fence, not with the racial climate we’re in right now. This feels like prime time, and that’s why bills got brought back up again.”

Last year, COVID-19 mandates halted mass Juneteenth celebrations. As vaccinations rates rose during the spring and COVID rates fell, Lisa Gardner, director of communications and community engagement for the Spokane City Council, could see her community yearning for reunion. Juneteenth would serve as the breath of fresh air for Spokane residents.

“It was really just gloom and doom after losing love ones and even people experiencing COVID themselves firsthand, so I think this year it was a matter of breathing life back into community and ourselves,” Gardner said. “(Housing official) Cupid Alexander, (City Councilmember) Betsy Wilkerson and I asked ourselves, ‘How do you we bring life back into East Central? Why not do it on Juneteenth weekend?’ ”

From that moment, Gardner called on community organizations for a trusted approach to the Juneteenth celebration. Organizations like NAACP, The Black Lens and Better Health Spokane answered the call to bring Spokane together, but Jones has created Juneteenth celebrations since his arrival to Spokane in 2011. He realized church elders of the Holy Temple Church of God in Christ led Juneteenth events, but other community leaders weren’t involved. They didn’t reflect his robust childhood Juneteenth celebrations in Newport News, Virginia.

“Church elders didn’t have the energy to put things together, so they passed the baton to me and Michael, who made flyers, invited community members to test the reception,” Jones recalled. “One hundred and fifty people came. It was an unprecedented response.”

With Spokane’s community eager to learn, Jones knew he and his partner could begin Juneteenth celebrations with an education approach. INJC became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, creating a financial avenue to support his Juneteenth vision. He paired with the Spokane Community College and Spokane Public Schools, passing on the Juneteenth history his grandparents passed to him.

With the country reconciling with its racial history a decade later, Jones’ wish for a growing Juneteenth celebration is coming true. Historical and current aspects of Black culture will be at the forefront of the celebratory weekend.

“As a Black culture, we are very dynamic and there are so many little jewels in our culture while being Black in America,” Gardner said. “These organizations came together so we can put on a communitywide event that’s free to the entire family for the weekend.”

The Juneteenth weekend kicks off with the INJC’s Pillar Awards on Friday afternoon, virtually recognizing members and organizations who act as the backbone to Spokane’s prosperity, pillars to keep the community structure upright. In 2014, Jones even found a way to celebrate Spokane longtime resident Peggie Troutt with the Bridge Builder Award. Troutt celebrated Juneteenth in the ‘80s at Fairchild Air Force Base along with her extensive community work. Decades later, she still runs the Calvary Baptist Soup Kitchen that feeds homeless people hot meals.

“Black Panther,” Marvel’s first black superhero movie, is the feature film for Movie in the Park Friday night. The blockbuster was a cultural phenomenon in 2018, as Black director Ryan Coogler sprinkled references of Black and African history, including Dora Milaje, the all-women warrior group that pays homage to the real all-female military regiment called the Dahomey Amazons.

For Saturday, both the Juneteenth Block Party and vaccination clinic will take place in the MLK Family Outreach Center at East Central Community Center. From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., organizers will host a resource fair for members of the community. Music and entertainment from DJ K-Phi and Grammy-nominated artist and songwriter Clemm Rishad will be provided from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. On the final day, Praise in the Park is a tribute to traditional Sundays in the Black community. Church is a cornerstone of Black livelihood, historically known to be the meeting place for African Americans to reconvene on social justice issue during the civil rights movement.

“Our liberation came in the prayer of our ancestors and their dedication,” Gardner said. “It’s only right that we have an element of praise in our celebrations.”

Ten minutes from Praise in the Park and Community Book Drive, the weekend concludes with a Father’s Day Brunch, with traditional soul food served from the Emmanuel Life Center. Spokane is the birthplace of the United States’ Father’s Day celebration after Sonora Smart Dodd paid tribute to her father in 1910, and the brunch will honor father figures in the community.

Whether by reuniting with old friends or learning a new aspect of history, Spokane’s Juneteenth weekend is set to be a celebration of life, liberty and community, organizers say.

The events will be used to attract and educate all.

“Juneteenth was not looked at as a holiday to be celebrated by everyone, but I want it to be celebrated by all and by many,” Gardner said. “We celebrate all other cultural holidays, and we want Juneteenth to have that same adoration and love.”