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Juneteenth celebrations include fun, food and history lessons

June 19, which symbolizes the end of enslavement for Black Americans, became a federal holiday last year.

Opal Lee, known as the "Grandmother of Juneteenth," waves during Opal's Walk for Freedom on Saturday in Fort Worth. Texas. Lee led her annual 2 1/2-mile walk, representing the number of years after the Emancipation Proclamation before enslaved people in Texas learned they were free on June 19, 1865. (Smiley N. Pool/AP)
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A year after President Joe Biden signed legislation making June 19 the nation’s 12th federal holiday, people across the United States gathered at Juneteenth events filled with music, food and fireworks. Celebrations also included an emphasis on learning about history and addressing racial inequalities.

Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, commemorates the day in 1865 when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to order freedom for the enslaved people of the state — two months after the Confederacy had surrendered in the Civil War.

What is the Emancipation Proclamation and did it free enslaved people?

“Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments,” Biden said in a statement Sunday. “They confront them to grow stronger. And that is what this great nation must continue to do.”

A Gallup Poll found that Americans are more familiar with Juneteenth than they were last year, with 59 percent saying they knew “a lot” or “some” about the holiday compared with 37 percent a year ago in May. The poll also found that support for making Juneteenth part of school history lessons increased from 49 percent to 63 percent.

Yet many states have been slow to make it an official holiday. Lawmakers in Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and elsewhere did not advance proposals this year that would have closed state offices and given most of their public employees paid time off.

Celebrations in Texas included one at a Houston park created 150 years ago by a group of formerly enslaved men who bought the land. At times, it was the only public park available in the area to the Black community, according to the conservancy’s website.

“They wanted a place that they could not only have their celebration, but they could do other things during the year as a community,” said Jacqueline Bostic, vice-chairwoman of the board for the Emancipation Park Conservancy and the great-granddaughter of one of the park’s founders, the Reverend Jack Yates.

As more people learn about Juneteenth, “we want to harness that and use this moment as a tool to educate people about history and not just African American history but American history,” said Ramon Manning, chairman of the board for the Emancipation Park Conservancy.

Some of the largest city celebrations from Los Angeles, California, to New York City not only touched on the history of slavery in America, but also celebrated Black culture, business and food.

In New York City’s Brooklyn borough, more than 7,000 people attended a food festival organized Saturday and Sunday by Black-Owned Brooklyn, a digital publication and directory of local Black businesses.

Although Juneteenth is an American holiday, festival organizers said they included cuisines and flavors from Caribbean and West African countries. On Sunday, long lines formed from nearly every food stall, while a DJ played soulful house music.

The event was held at the Weeksville Heritage Center, one of the largest Black communities for freedmen before the Civil War. Attendees were given guided tours of the grounds, which includes historic homes and other structures where the community’s founders once lived.

“For a day that’s about emancipation, it only makes sense to have people gather on this land and feed each other not just with food but also spirit and soul, emotion and love,” said Isa Saldaña, programs and partnerships manager for the Weeksville Heritage Center. “A big part of [Juneteenth] is about learning to be free and feeling okay doing that.”