Last year, the annual celebration — which featured food trucks, live music, dance performances and discussions among historians — attracted more than 6,000 attendees in Watkins Park in Upper Marlboro. This year, because of restrictions on large gatherings due to the novel coronavirus, which has devastated Prince George’s, it will be virtual.
“It’s not only about celebrating the past, but looking at the future and charting the path forward,” said Doster, director of the black history program at the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
He said conversations about the future will be especially important this year, amid nationwide protests of police brutality that have followed the killing of George Floyd. In addition to online commemorations, multiple protests and public events are planned throughout the region.
Juneteenth, which combines the words June and Nineteenth, commemorates the day that more than 250,000 enslaved black people in Texas received news that they were free — more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
On June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Tex., Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger read out loud: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.”
But 155 years later, it is clear that “absolute equality” has not been achieved, said Oscar Barbarin, who chairs the African American studies department at the University of Maryland at College Park. The treatment of black men and women in the criminal justice system is just one example of the inequity that persists, he said.
Barbarin said celebration of Juneteenth has historically been spotty, with black writers like Maya Angelou elevating the significance of the day. “It’s celebrated and understood differently depending on the community and the state,” said Barbarin, noting that growing up in Louisiana, he never learned about Juneteenth.
Prince George’s, which was the biggest slave-owning county in Maryland, has transformed over the past three decades from a predominantly white, blue-collar farming community to an enclave of black prosperity.
There were a variety of Juneteenth celebrations held in the county in the 1980s and 1990s, put on by municipalities, churches and others. After then-County Council member Samuel H. Dean met Ronald Myers, the founder of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, in the 1990s, he wanted to find a way to bring those groups together.
“I consider this our Fourth of July, opposed to the other one,” said Dean, who worked with the parks and planning commission to create the countywide event.
Dean said he would still like to realize Myers’s dream of seeing the day recognized as a national holiday, which he said would increase awareness of black history.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) this week said executive-branch employees would get the day off this year and pledged to support legislation to make Juneteenth a paid state holiday in the future. The city of Manassas, Va., on Thursday declared the day a holiday for its employees.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) would “certainly consider such legislation,” said his spokesman Mike Ricci. The day is already recognized by both states and the District, but is not a legal holiday.
Prince George’s County Council member Jolene Ivey (D-District 5), a former state delegate, said she has always celebrated Nov. 1, 1864 — the day Maryland’s slaves were freed. In 2013, she sponsored a bill in the state legislature requiring the governor to proclaim Nov. 1 Maryland Emancipation Day. This year, she said she will be celebrating Juneteenth as well.
“It’s giving black people — and all people who love justice — a chance to celebrate,” Ivey said.
Dean’s successor, County Council member Derrick Leon Davis (D-District 6), says he “inherited the legacy of Juneteenth and am honored to carry it on.”
Davis, 52, said he did not learn about Juneteenth until he was a student at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, a historically black university. He remembers being astounded that people could have been kept as slaves for more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed them.
In recent years, he has grappled with how to both celebrate the occasion and recognize its solemnity.
“We as a country should move away from celebrating the things that divided us — like Confederate statues — and toward celebrating things that unite us,” Davis said.
This year, Nyana Quashie and her mother will do a cooking demonstration as part of the virtual celebrations in Prince George’s, which will be live-streamed on the Parks and Recreation Department’s Facebook page.
Quashie, who with her mother started Camella’s Kitchen, which focuses on Caribbean-inspired sauces and baked goods, said she is happy that the celebration focuses on history that it is not centered on white Americans.
“It’s so important to continue during these times to lift up the positive history and the contributions of African Americans to this country,” she said.
Violinist Chelsey Green, who grew up celebrating Juneteenth in Houston, will also participate in the virtual celebration. Green said she will play some classical songs and some by black artists including Rihanna, Beyoncé and Marvin Gaye.
She said playing Gaye’s “What’s Going On” will have special resonance because its references to discrimination and police brutality continue to be relevant today.
“It’s a testament to the continued fight,” said Green.