Maine communities expand Juneteenth holiday events

Organizers of public Juneteenth events are striving to include members of their wider communities and broaden understanding of the emancipation celebration that became a federal and state holiday in 2021.

Also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day and Black Independence Day, Juneteenth National Independence Day commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. It originated in Galveston, Texas, and has been celebrated on June 19 in Black communities across the United States since 1865.

But when President Biden and Gov. Janet Mills signed legislation declaring it a government holiday in June 2021, many residents of mostly white Maine had never heard of it. Some still don’t know what it’s about, beyond the fact that government offices, banks and some businesses will be closed Monday.

Juneteenth events in Biddeford, South Portland, Portland and other communities aim to encourage Mainers of all backgrounds to join the celebration and develop a deeper understanding of slavery’s legacy in the United States. Planned events include Juneteenth flag raisings, park gatherings, art shows, musical performances and historical lectures.

“This is new to us as a city government,” said Tim Boston, Biddeford’s municipal outreach and inclusion coordinator. “Juneteenth marks an end to slavery, but as we know, issues of race are ongoing in the United States. This provides an important opportunity to remind residents that this is a welcoming place and we embrace all people regardless of identity, ethnicity or race.”

Organizers in Biddeford and South Portland have incorporated World Refugee Day into their celebrations, recognizing the growing immigrant communities in their midst, including newcomers from the central African countries of Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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They are building on a diverse ethnic history tied to more than 30 different nationalities that came to work in Biddeford’s now-closed textile mills in the late 1800s and early 1900s, including French Canadian, Irish, Italian and Greek immigrants.

“This is an American holiday and a reminder that we have to preserve freedom, liberation and security for all Americans,” said Eisha Kahn, who is helping to organize several Juneteenth events in Biddeford.

Kahn is co-chair of a MaineHealth employee group representing people of color that planned to hold a Juneteenth flag raising at Southern Maine Health Care in Biddeford at 7:30 a.m. Friday. A similar event is scheduled to happen at South Portland City Hall at 10 a.m. Friday, organized by the city’s Human Rights Commission.

“It’s a loss when we don’t pay attention to our shared history and understand it and honor it,” said Pedro Vazquez, commission chairman. “We believe everyone’s liberation is linked. It’s not just about you. It’s not just about me. It’s about all of us.”

Juneteenth commemorates the day that the last slaves still living in bondage in the United States learned they were free. It happened on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, where Union Gen. Gordon Granger read General Order No. 3, which said “all slaves are free” by proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862, more than a year into the Civil War, and it went into effect Jan. 1, 1863. But it wasn’t until after the war ended, in the spring of 1865, that Union troops traveled to the hinterlands of southwest Texas and Granger announced publicly that the proclamation would be enforced.

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“This is American history,” said Seth Goldstein, a maritime historian and expert on Maine’s ties to slavery. “It just so happens that a large portion of this history has been marginalized. … This history was purposely obscured and left out of history books because it was uncomfortable.”

Goldstein, who teaches history at the Maine College of Art & Design and is director of the Cushing’s Point Museum in South Portland, will deliver two Juneteenth lectures. At 4:15 p.m. Sunday at the South Portland Public Library, he will discuss the Underground Railroad, the abolition movement and Portland’s historical African diaspora community. At 6 p.m. Tuesday at the First Parish Meeting House in Biddeford, he will share his research on the connections that Portland and Maine had to sugar plantations of the West Indies that relied on the labor of enslaved people.

“The goal of the historian is to create an accurate picture of the past,” Goldstein said. “You can’t do that without looking at some things that make us uncomfortable.”


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