George Floyd protests raise Juneteenth’s profile across Southern California

Observances celebrating the end of slavery in the United States are getting much more attention across Southern California today than they have in the past, in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody and the wave of protests that followed.

And President Trump’s initial decision to hold a campaign rally Friday, June 19, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, served to shine the spotlight even brighter on Juneteenth.

“The stars aligned and all those elements came together,” Terence Fitzgerald, a professor of social work at USC, said Thursday, June 18.

Trump has since rescheduled his rally for Saturday, June 20.

There’s no doubt about it, said Trudy Coleman, founder and CEO of Juneteenth Education Technology Mobile Arts Center, who prepared a virtual event for Pomona-area residents, there is more enthusiasm this year.

“Until this happened, a lot of people didn’t even know what Juneteenth was,” said Coleman, a Pomona Valley NAACP member and National Juneteenth Observance Foundation regional director for California.

Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform slaves the Civil War was over and they were free — more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation and more than two months after the war ended.

The name comes from combining June and Nineteenth.

“Texans were the last ones to know that the slaves were free,” said Bobby McDonald, president and CEO of the Orange County Black Chamber of Commerce. “That’s the way news traveled back in those days. There were no emails, texts or social media.”

Letitia Clark, a Black woman who serves as Tustin’s mayor pro tem, said she couldn’t recall an earlier occasion when there was nearly as much attention placed on Juneteenth in Orange County.

Clark is helping to put on an online women’s health event sponsored by Susan G. Komen Orange County in conjunction with Juneteenth. And, she noted, a lot of employers are giving workers the day off.

Pastor Willie Oliver, president of the NAACP’s Southwest Riverside County branch, said more celebrations are planned across the Inland Empire than in years past. And, he suggested, had it not been for the coronavirus pandemic there would be still more.

Some traditional celebrations will be smaller, McDonald said, because the continuing threat of COVID-19 is keeping many at home and causing some observances to go virtual.

For example, Coleman said, the 30th Pomona Valley Juneteenth Jazz and Arts Festival, a usually large and festive outdoor gathering at Ganesha Park in Pomona, has been transformed into an online event that will air 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday.

And in lieu of an annual Riverside event, Johnnie Corina III of Riverside said he was filming a video featuring interviews with about a dozen people, footage from recent protest rallies and clips from last year’s Juneteenth observance. Corina said “Juneteenth Riverside” will be released on Father’s Day, June 21, at 5 p.m.

At the same time, there are many in-person events, some spinning off of the weeks of protest stemming from Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

Rev. Ivan Pitts, senior pastor of Second Baptist Church in Santa Ana, is seen Thursday, June 18, 2020. His children prefer to celebrate Juneteenth to July 4, “because that’s when we became independent.” (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Rev. Ivan Pitts, senior pastor of Second Baptist Church in Santa Ana, Orange County’s oldest African-American church, said he has been invited to two Juneteenth events: a march at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, and Black Lives Matter march and block party at the Irvine Civic Center.

Denton Burr of Temecula Protest, who has organized several rallies and marches in the southwest Riverside County city in recent weeks, is also helping to put on a Juneteenth observance at Temecula’s Winchester Creek Park for the first time. And he said he is working with the city to plan a bigger 2021 event at Temecula City Hall.

In San Bernardino, Will Amudipe is putting on a “Juneteenth Feed the Dino” event at Perris Hill Park, where food and other supplies will be provided for the needy and homeless, and family oriented activities will be held.

Juneteenth has been little known across the region. But Amudipe said people are starting to become aware of it.

Fitzgerald said Juneteenth is becoming better understood across California’s multicultural society largely because of recent events.

While the heightened awareness has been prompted by the George Floyd protests, it also is a product of the stay-at-home orders associated with the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think that because of the COVID virus we have been forced to sit down and slow down and pay attention to things that we have not had a chance to pay attention to before,” Pitts said.

Pitts added that his children, ages 13, 16 and 18, have had a lot of extra time because of school closures. And in recent weeks they have been researching the history and meaning of Juneteenth. They have reached strong convictions about it, he added.

“My children said, ‘We don’t want to celebrate the Fourth of July because we weren’t independent. We want to celebrate Juneteenth because that’s when we became independent.’”

Fitzgerald, the USC professor, said Juneteenth is both a celebration and a reminder.

Many history textbooks “glossed over the true horrific nature of slavery,” Fitzgerald said.

And, so, he said, “Anytime where we are spotlighting and reminding America of the horrific history pertaining to slavery is a good thing. It’s reminding America of its promise of democracy, so we never forget.”

Rex Richardson, a Long Beach councilman, called Juneteenth a “moment of reflection.”

“Juneteenth really is a moment for everyone to recognize and think about the experience of African-Americans,” Richardson said, adding that there remains much work to be done to bring equality to Black communities across Southern California.

But will the heightened energy and enthusiasm for Juneteenth this year continue into the future? Or will it fade?

Pitts said it is too early to tell.

“My suspicion is it may not last,” he said. “My hope is that it will last and last and last. However, this seems different. Our young people, who I am very proud of, seem to be in this for the long run.”

Oliver, the NAACP official from Riverside County, said he believes Juneteenth will continue to grow.

“On June 20, 2020, there are going to be agencies, companies, cities already planning for Juneteenth 2021,” Oliver said. “I think it is only going to get bigger from this standpoint.”

Meanwhile, said Makeda Kumasi, a UC Riverside lecturer on dance, and theater and film production, said this year’s event is going to set the stage for a brighter future.

“Juneteenth, happening at this time, in this environment, is definitely going to be a celebration because we can finally get together and reason and talk and engage, whether it is online or in person,” Kumasi said.

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