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For Many, Today Is Independence Day

By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 18, 2005

As an African American, Richard Bingham has always felt some ambivalence about the Fourth of July.

So when he learned six years ago about Juneteenth, which commemorates the day in 1865 when the last U.S. slaves were notified of their independence, he hosted a party to share food, fellowship and history with his neighbors in Prince George's County. He's repeated it each year since.

They grilled meat, a tradition started in Texas, where Juneteenth originated. They prayed over shackles and chains provided by a historian friend for ancestors who had been enslaved. Bingham dramatized "The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro," Frederick Douglass's impassioned commentary on the hypocrisy of the holiday.

That small gathering has grown into Prince George's first countywide celebration this year of Juneteenth Independence Day, a once-obscure commemoration that has spread to more than two dozen states and a national program today that is expected to draw thousands to the Lincoln Memorial.

"The Fourth of July was America's independence day, not ours," said Bingham, 50, of Landover, a trainer with the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commission. "It wasn't until almost a century later that the nation finally realized that 'We need to let these folks be free, too.'

"Juneteenth Day," he added, " is our independence day."

A combination of the words "June" and "nineteenth," Juneteenth was born out of a spontaneous celebration that erupted June 19, 1865, when Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, declared U.S. sovereignty over Texas and officially notified the state's 250,000 slaves that they were free. That was 30 months after President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation.

The anniversary, traditionally celebrated on the third Saturday of the month, is now observed formally in 17 states, and several others have recognized it through gubernatorial proclamations or legislation, officials said. Texas made it a paid state holiday in 1980. New York Gov. George E. Pataki (R) last year signed a law establishing Juneteenth Freedom Day. The District passed legislation in 2003 recognizing Juneteenth. Maryland and Virginia do not formally recognize it, though celebrations are planned in Alexandria, Montgomery County and Southern Maryland.

In 1997, Congress recognized the day with a resolution, sponsored by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) in the Senate and Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) in the House.

Two years later, a group of black leaders brought the observance to the Mall, celebrating with prayer, public speakers, poetry, song and dance.

"Juneteenth is about American history," said the Rev. Ronald V. Myers Sr., chairman of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. "The nation declared its independence on July 4, 1776, and the last slaves were freed on June 19, 1865. We need to acknowledge both days when we celebrate our freedom."

This year's commemoration comes as advocates are pressing national leaders to acknowledge and atone for the country's past wrongs against African Americans. On Monday, the U.S. Senate apologized for failing to ever approve anti-lynching legislation, the first time the body has apologized to African Americans. Each year, the National Juneteenth Independence Day program features a reading of the names of lynching victims.

Juneteenth advocates want the day to be established as a national observance. Myers, a physician and ordained minister from Mississippi, began a petition drive urging President Bush to participate in this year's events and to establish a presidential commission on the observance. The group is not seeking a paid holiday, but rather a national observance similar to Flag Day, Myers said.

A presidential greeting from Bush about Juneteenth was posted on the White House Web site this week extolling the contributions of African Americans, but the president said he has a scheduling conflict for today's events, Myers said.

"There is no personal acknowledgment from the president of the significance of Juneteenth or the need for healing from the legacy of slavery in America . . . even though the White House and the U.S. Capitol were built from slave labor," he said.

Myers said Bush's lack of response was particularly disappointing because of his acknowledgment of Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican holiday.

In Congress, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.) have sponsored resolutions asking for a national Juneteenth observance.

"Just like the day when the greatest civil rights leader of our time was born or the day we finally gave African Americans a ballot and a voice, Juneteenth is a day when we look back on a time when everyday Americans faced the most daunting challenges and the slimmest odds and still persevered," Obama said at a luncheon Thursday.

Beyond the national efforts, many black families celebrate the day with friends and a barbecue. In Prince George's, Bingham said the countywide event will be family-centered because of the importance of passing the history down to children.

"Somewhere in the Scripture it says that people who continue to celebrate their culture thrive," he said. "That's why it is important to continue to teach our children about their history -- so they won't lose it."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company