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Juneteenth Takes On Added Meaning Amid George Floyd-Inspired Protests

Terrance Curtain has attended a few different demonstrations around Cleveland since the death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis.

Sometimes, the pastor and assistant school principal speaks about racial inequality. Sometimes, he leads the crowd in chants.

But when he started thinking about how he wanted to mark Juneteenth this year, he imagined something different.

"The idea that came to me was, 'Hey, everybody, go out to your front yard, go out to the sidewalk in front of your house, stand with your neighbors and talk across the street,'" he said.

Starting at 6:40 p.m. Friday, Curtain is inviting people across Northeast Ohio to stand outside for at least eight minutes and 46 seconds — the amount of time it took for the officer to remove his knee from Floyd's neck.

Getting people to stand outside their houses, rather than gathering in a central location, is key to commemorating Juneteenth this year, he said. For one thing, it accommodates those who don’t feel comfortable in crowds because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Even more important, the neighborhood focus is a way to honor what he feels Juneteenth is all about.

"I want us to be able to finally fight racism together," Curtain said. "And you can't do that unless you stand up and stand up in its face and you stand up together."

Equality In Theory And Practice

Freedom from repression not just in the eyes of the law, but in the places people live, is actually what Juneteenth commemorates.

It was June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers landed in Galveston, Texas to announce the end of the Civil War. It was also the day, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, many black people heard for the first time that they were free.

The reasons for the delay are unclear, but there are a few theories, according to Thomas Bynum, director of the Black Studies Program and associate history professor at Cleveland State University.


Two women sit in a buggy decorated for an early Juneteenth celebration in Houston in 1908. [Houston Public Library]

One theory, Bynum said, is that because Texas was one of the more remote slave states, it took news longer to travel there. Another is that an earlier messenger was killed on his way to Texas.

"But I personally believe the information just was withheld from those who were enslaved in Texas, to keep them enslaved," Bynum said.

The unofficial holiday slowly spread from Texas across the nation. Bynum said from early on, Juneteenth events have straddled a line between being celebrations and calls to action — "a call to action on behalf of the nation, not just black Americans, [to do] the work that we need to do to secure social justice in this country," he said.

Uniting In More Than Protest

Organizers of another Northeast Ohio Juneteenth event are hoping to emphasize celebration even while acknowledging how much still needs to be done to achieve true equality in the United States.

"I think it’s so important that we as black people unite in more than just marching, more than just the protests and things like that," said Aisia Jones, a co-organizer of the Juneteenth Day of Celebration in Cleveland’s Buckeye neighborhood.


Aisia Jones, left, wants this year's Juneteenth celebration to be a place for 'black people to unite in more than just marching.' [Aisia Jones]

The event will kick off with a freedom walk down Buckeye Road, followed by an African drum circle and a car caravan. The Cleveland branch of the NAACP and the nonprofit Neighborhood Connections helped sponsor and plan the day.

"It's going to be I think 20 to 50 people that own Jeeps just riding around sharing love, chanting love, chanting community, chanting peace, chanting change," Jones said.

The group has about 1,000 masks to hand out to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Low-income and black neighborhoods have been especially hard hit by the disease.

All are welcome to attend, Jones said, regardless of race — though there will be one expected absence.

"There is no police presence planned," she said.

Click to enlarge: A map shows the route of the Juneteenth freedom walk on June 20. [Whole Hearted Connections]

The organizers have reached out to black-owned security companies, but have not specifically invited or requested the attendance of Cleveland police. If officers do show up in a professional capacity, Jones said she’ll have questions.

"Being that I'm one of the organizers, and I didn't invite you, 'Who sent you? Are you here to wreak havoc or are you here to be in solidarity and really enjoy?'" she said.

They’re the same questions, she said, that police need to start asking themselves when they’re working in black communities – not just on Juneteenth, but every day.

Terrance Curtain's Stand Up 4 Humanity event starts at 6:40 p.m. Friday.

The Buckeye Neighborhood Juneteenth Day of Celebration and Freedom Walk kicks off 11 a.m. Saturday at Benedictine High School in Cleveland.

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