By Cora Lester and Yulani Semien, The Drum

In 1976, Baton Rougeans first celebrated Juneteenth with a parade. Then annual celebrations occurred sporadically in the capital city until historian Sadie Roberts-Joseph began hosting annual celebrations consistently in the late 1980s.

Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day, and Emancipation Day, is a holiday celebrating the 1865 emancipation of all African and Black people who were enslaved in the United States.

In 1992, the city of Alexandria hosted the first state-wide public celebration, nearly a decade before Roberts-Joseph, other community leaders, and legislators were able to secure a state statute recognizing Juneteenth Observance Day. That was in 2003.

It has taken 18 years for the work Roberts-Joseph started to expand into a state holiday, thanks to legislation pushed by State Rep. Larry Selders and the Legislative Black Caucus.

On June 2, Selders’ House Bill 554 to designate Juneteenth as a state holiday passed the House of Representatives with unanimous votes. On June 10, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette announced it would observe Juneteenth as an official university holiday. No classes would be held and the campus would close, officials said.

Then, on June 11, Governor John Bel Edwards signed the bill into law and designated Juneteenth as a state holiday. Edwards quickly approved Friday, June 18 as a half-day holiday for state employees.

State law now designates the third Saturday in June as Juneteenth Day throughout the state. Beginning next year, all state offices will be closed the Friday before.

On the pulse of national momentum, Congress also passed and President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act on June 17, making June 19th the eleventh federal holiday.

“I’m hoping folks all around the state will learn more about it and celebrate it together,” said Selders.

Grandmothers of Juneteenth

Juneteenth marks and honors the day when U.S. General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to demand that enslaved people there be set free. President Abraham Lincoln had signed an executive order more than two years earlier, to free all enslaved people in places that were still “in rebellion against the United States.” After Granger’s arrival, Galveston became the site of the nation’s first Juneteenth Celebration.

Momentum grew as the annual celebration of freedom spread beyond Texas. Like many others, historians like Roberts-Joseph and Opal Lee of Marshall, Texas, began Juneteenth celebrations in their communities.

Lee is now known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth.” After years of creating local celebrations and persistently gaining attention to Juneteenth, Lee moved her focus to bring national recognition to the Day.

In 2016, Lee, who was 89 years old at the time, mobilized a team, launched an online petition, and pledged to walk 1,400 miles from her Texas home to Washington DC.

In November of 2019, Lee visited the Odell Williams Then and Now African American History Museum (now the Baton Rouge African American History Museum) four months after the death of museum curator Roberts-Joseph who could easily be identified as Louisiana’s Grandmother of Juneteenth.

“Though small in stature, Ms Lee’s passion for ensuring that Juneteenth become a national holiday was immeasurable,” wrote the museum on Facebook. “During her visit, she was asked by a student how, at 92, was she still so driven. Ms. Lee responded, “I asked God for the strength to see it through to the end. He keeps waking me up, so I keep going.” She ended up logging 300 miles on foot and continued to push her movement to appear across the country. When, Biden authorized the Juneteenth holiday earlier this month, Lee, who is now 94, was by his side.

First Louisiana Celebrations

“To our knowledge the first public celebration of Juneteenth was held in 1993 in Alexandria, Louisiana,” wrote Carolyn Frazier, organizer of the 29th Annual Juneteenth Let’s Do This Together Celebration.

According to the Central Louisiana Juneteenth Cultural Celebration, the inaugural celebration was organized by former Alexandria councilman and current Rapides Parish School Board member John Allen, former Rapides Police Juror Joe Fuller, and fundraiser Allen Semien Sr. More than 500 people participated in the one-day event.

The annual celebration did not occur in 1995 and in 2020 due to the pandemic. In 1996, the Alexandria News Weekly and publisher Leon Coleman sponsored the celebration in order to continue the event. Once held at the Alexandria Amphitheater with more than 15,000 participants, this year’s 29th celebration spanned a week with activities at various locations across the city. Participants enjoyed a parade and engaged in entertaining activities that are designed to raise cultural awareness and better understanding of each other.

Likewise, organizers in Donaldsonville have hosted Juneteenth celebrations for 23 years. Started by former Donaldsonville Mayor B.J. Francis Sr. and his late wife, Janet Ganes Francis. It was hosted by the River Road African American Museum and other volunteers in the community, including Tamiko Francis Garrison, Allison Hudson, and the City of Donaldsonville.

Madam C.J. Walker Louisiana Juneteenth Celebration

As part of the ongoing Juneteenth activities going on throughout Madison Parish, June 18-19, the Village of Delta named a portion of Highway 3218, near First Street, for the late Madam C.J. Walker.

The Delta native was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and activist. She was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 on the same cotton plantation where her parents, Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedlove, were enslaved. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, she was the first self-made American female millionaire and the wealthiest Black woman of her time.

Walker made her fortune by inventing and selling a line of hair products and cosmetics specifically for Black women. On Friday, June 18, a host of dignitaries, guests and local residents gathered in Delta to honor Walker and kickoff the two-day Madame C. J. Walker Juneteenth Celebration.

“(Madam Walker) was a diamond in the rough,” said State Rep. C. Travis Johnson, one of the event organizers. “Imagine what she went through as a woman. As a Black woman. When I think about her. When I think about this community, this is the beginning of a vision,” he said.

The celebration included a Zydeco and Gospel concert and awards program. The Madam CJ Walker Lifetime Achievement Award was given to Elvadius Fields, who was a Mayor for the Town of St. Joseph and the second Black agriculture agent in Tensas parish in 1961. Residents and Ferriday High School students produced a historical parade on Saturday, that presented the unforgettable journey of Black Americans since 1863.

Collective Celebration

Statewide the sounds of celebration traveled statewide. From North Louisiana where Monroe hosted its 10th annual celebration and parade. The Town of Richwood held its first celebration which included a car show and parade. Local archivist Carl Robinson also presented a one-day historical exhibit of family items he has collected dating back to the late 1800s. Rho Omega and Friends held a three-day festival, honoring African American heritage and culture in Shreveport. The City of Grambling’s Juneteenth Festival included a 5k walk, cookouts, original movie screenings, a paint party, and a fishing tournament.

In St. Mary, the 100 Black Men hosted the inaugural Soul Food Festival, while the City of Oberlin held its first Juneteenth “Celebrate Freedom” parade and fest at the Allen Parish Civic Center and Veteran’s Memorial Park. The Real Change in Ruston Committee partnered with the Zion Traveler CDC to throw Ruston’s first Juneteenth celebration concert.

In New Orleans, the celebration of freedom continued at the African American Museum with an arts market, in Congo Square, and at the Ashe Cultural Center where they hosted a drumming circle. Groups of Baby Dolls prayed and danced in the 7th Ward on Bayou Road. OHUB hosted a hybrid Juneteenth 4.0 Celebration with speakers and a virtual casting call with ABC’s Shark Tank. Nearby, the Whitney Plantation hosted tours of the land where the enslaved children are memorialized to explain the realities of slavery and plantation life.

At the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, the Stephens Hall chimes and the Victory Bell at Cajun Field each rang 19 times to mark Juneteenth on Saturday. “Observing Juneteenth offers the university a moment to acknowledge the challenges Black Americans still face. We can honor that struggle by affirming our commitment to creating an environment that respects – and draws strength from – difference,” said Taniecea Mallery, executive director of strategic initiatives and chief diversity officer.

Groups throughout Baton Rouge hosted as many as four separate celebrations including those hosted by the Community Against Drugs and Violence (CADAV), the Baton Rouge African American Museum, Scotlandville High School, the City of Baker with Advantage Charter Academy, and State Rep. C. Denise Marcelle with CareSouth Medical Center.