The plaza, which last summer was host to protesters calling for change after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, on Saturday was filled with tourists and families eager to observe the holiday, which commemorates the end of slavery in Texas. .
A group of cyclists wearing Juneteenth T-shirts biked by in the early afternoon, waving and winning cheers from onlookers as they sliced through the humidity. A family in matching outfits stepped from their charter bus to pose for a photo.
Tiffany Dunston, 28, moved a loudspeaker out of the way so a young girl could practice double Dutch jumping, coached by her mother and two women holding either end of a white rope.
The women belonged to the Double Dutch Society, a group of Howard University alumni who regularly hold jump rope lessons at Black Lives Matter Plaza to promote “education, leadership, and the preservation of Black culture.”
Dunston, who is Black and who co-founded the society, said she has taught double Dutch at the plaza almost every Thursday since last summer’s demonstrations. The lessons are part protest and part pure pleasure — and that’s the way it should be, she said.
“What better way to resist than to choose joy?” Dunston said.
Federal employees had received an unexpected day off Friday, after President Biden, with rare bipartisan support, signed into law the measure designating Juneteenth a national holiday. Many took advantage of the day to visit the capital city’s storied monuments and museums. The National Museum of African American History and Culture saw dozens crowd into sidewalk-long lines to gain admittance.
Celebrations stretched far beyond the District, though. Residents of Annapolis watched Saturday as fleets of sports cars, dancers and floats inched through the city for a Juneteenth parade, generating chants, cheers, horns and car exhaust. Girls in yellow wigs and neon-blue uniforms high-kicked to the rhythm of a snare drum, while people in the crowd bounced along to the beat thrumming from the marching band.
Phyllis “Tee” Adams, executive director for the city’s Juneteenth festivities, said the idea for the parade, the first of its kind in Annapolis, came to her in a dream. But, she added, the parade — which ultimately included 69 marching groups — swelled far beyond her imaginings.
“Make way for the Juneteenth celebration!” a man yelled as he stood at the corner of Dock and Randall streets. Hundreds of people obeyed, clustering on city docks and along sidewalks, cheering and waving at the parade as it passed.
Dressed in matching yellow dresses, two tiny girls reached out to grab candy from a woman marching in the line. Their mother, Jnell Suchy, 35, said she brought her family to the parade to teach her daughters, who are 2 and 4, about the history and importance of the holiday.
“I want the girls to get exposed to Juneteenth,” Suchy said. “It’s not just a celebration of the equality that got enacted, but a celebration of freedom and independence.”
Juneteenth, an amalgamation of the words June and nineteenth, honors the day 156 years ago when the nation’s last group of enslaved people learned they were free. Although many Americans believe President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — issued Jan. 1, 1863 — automatically freed all enslaved people, the truth is more complex.
Millions of Black Americans won their freedom over the course of the next several years after the proclamation, often by crossing Union lines to emancipate themselves. The last remaining enslaved people, a quarter of a million people living in Galveston, Tex., became free on June 19, 1865, when Union Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger stood upon a balcony there and announced their emancipation. Until then, no word had reached Galveston of Lincoln’s proclamation.
Like Suchy, Eliott Winslow, 48, wants to make sure his children know the truth of America’s checkered racial past. That’s why he drove from Bowie to Annapolis for the parade — and took advantage of time in the car to tell his 9-year-old daughter, Resse, why Juneteenth is significant.
“Juneteenth is a historic . . . ” Resse started to explain, before looking to her father for help finishing the thought.
“We had that talk, but it needs to sink in a little bit more,” Winslow said.
Winslow said he himself didn’t learn about Juneteenth until he was in his early 30s. He said he hopes to celebrate it every year going forward now that it’s a national holiday.
He added that he thinks the recognition, from Biden and the federal government, is long overdue. Winslow said he thought the killing of George Floyd, and the subsequent nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality, helped spur legislators and the president to action.
“Change happened because another Black man had to die at the hands of the police,” he said. “But it’s better late than never.”
Elsewhere among the crowd in Annapolis, Dawn Edgerton-Cameron saw a boy marching in the parade and carrying a drum. He looked no older than 3, she decided.
Watching him, Edgerton-Cameron, 52, felt a thrill of reassurance. She worries many people in the United States still do not realize that African American history and culture is American history and culture — but the sight of the marching child gave her hope that may be changing.
She thought to herself: That boy will grow up not knowing a time before Juneteenth was a federal holiday.
Around the same time, an hour’s drive away in the nation’s capital, a group of people gathered in a circle outside the White House, swaying to Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You.” One by one, dancers darted into the middle of the circle to show off their best moves.
Jacqueline Horton, 52, jumped into the circle to shimmy alongside her son. She exited the makeshift dance floor laughing, as her son yelled after her, “Don’t let her fool you! She has some moves!”
Horton said she grew up in Memphis, which she called the heart of the civil rights movement. She brought her son and daughter to Black Lives Matter Plaza on Saturday because she thought being in a historic place would underscore the historic nature of the day — that it would help her children appreciate the decades of advocacy required to gain federal recognition for Juneteenth.
But she also just wanted to join “a wonderful celebration.” She wanted to dance in the sunshine.