SEATTLE — This year Juneteenth will be recognized as a paid state holiday in Washington state for the first time. The holiday commemorates the end of slavery in the United States.
Juneteenth also marks one year since the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) debuted its choir, the African American Cultural Ensemble (ACE). The group started to uplift and inspire the community with hope and healing through song.
LaNesha DeBardelaben, NAAM’s president and CEO thought of the idea during the summer of 2020, as protests occurred around the country for racial justice.
“The brutal murder of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many other black lives, really moved our museum to do something that would bring greater awareness around the essentialness of recognizing Black lives, Black brilliance, Black excellence, and Black existence,” said DeBardelaben.
“People were despaired, disparaged, and people were depressed,” said Jason Turner, ACE’s director. “People were kind of distraught over these shootings. Well, what better way to try and encourage people and give them hope, and maybe a little bit of peace?”
Since its debut on Juneteenth 2021 ACE has performed across the Seattle area.
“The African American Culture ensemble has quite a portfolio of music of the movement of the civil rights movement. Music of our ancestors, negro spirituals, music of consciousness that asks the question, or poses the notion, 'Ooh, child, things are gonna get easier, things are gonna get better,'” said DeBardelaben.
Many Black Americans are still waiting for that message of hope to become a reality. Racism is still painfully prevalent in our society. Just last month a man allegedly motivated by racism and hate shot and killed 10 people in Buffalo, New York.
Through these challenges and dark times, DeBardlaben said their mission is to not let despair have the last word.
“That is the story of America,” said DeBardelaben. “When we look at American history, when we look at the oppression that we've had to grapple with and overcome. We have had to hold on to a sense of hope.”
While many are just now learning about Juneteenth. In Galveston, Texas, the birthplace of the holiday, they’ve been commemorating it for 156 years.
KING 5 traveled to Texas to explore those roots and spoke up with Samuel Collins, known in Galveston as "Professor Juneteenth." Collins is a historian and at Nia Cultural Center Juneteenth Legacy Project Headquarters.
Collins educates visitors on the origins of Juneteenth, short for June 19, 1865, the day Union troops arrived in Galveston to let enslaved people know they were free. The troops’ arrival came two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln.
“As the Union soldiers moved throughout the south, they spread freedom from place to place,” said Collins. “So, these states would have received a message at different times.”
Now, the holiday is all about celebrating Black culture, history and life.
Collins said Juneteenth is celebrated through events like festivals, barbeques, and church services.
“This holiday represented to the former enslaved and their descendants, really our 4th of July. But it's not an ‘our’ in the sense that it's only African Americans,” said Collins. “It's all Americans that value freedom and liberty should celebrate Juneteenth. So that's one of the things that I’m working to get more individuals to embrace. Not that Juneteenth is connected to enslavement, but that Juneteenth is connected to freedom.”
The Northwest African American Museum will hold events all weekend. ACE will perform at the Sounders and OL Reign games at 12 p.m. and 7 p.m. on June 18. NAAM will host a Skate Party and Community Day on June 19 from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. at Judkins Park.
For more Juneteenth events happening in the Seattle area, visit southseattleemerald.com.