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As Juneteenth Marks Many Firsts, Local Activists And Leaders Discuss Its Significance This Year

 Kiara Yakita, founder of Black Liberation Movement Central Ohio, poses for a photo at Goodale Park on June 16, 2021.
Michael Lee
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WOSU
Kiara Yakita, founder of Black Liberation Movement Central Ohio, poses for a photo at Goodale Park on June 16, 2021.

This year’s Juneteenth holiday on Saturday marks a year of firsts — organizations hosting their first-ever celebrations, Franklin County and the city of Columbus making it a paid holiday, and the United States making it a federal holiday.

Local organizations and leaders spoke about the holiday’s significance this year, especially after a year of trauma in the Black community.

Black Yoga Collective founder Yaizmen Shereè said she only learned about Juneteenth, a day celebrating the true end of slavery in the United States in 1865, four years ago. But even so, freedom has always been a large part of her values.

“When we look at freedom, it’s not just yoga, or movement and stretching, it’s freedom all the way around," Shereè said. "So it’s financial, it’s education, it’s creativity.”

Her organization is a non-profit supporting Black yogis and Black mental health. And this year, they’ve organized their first Juneteenth festival, a three-day celebration starting Friday at Culture, an event space near Worthington. Activities include yoga, live music and a Father's Day car show.

Last year, the Franklin County Board of Commissioners decided to replace Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a paid holiday for county employees beginning this year.

This week, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther announced city employees would get an extra day off this year and will officially recognize Juneteenth as a paid holiday starting next year. And on a bigger scale, President Joe Biden signed a bill on Thursday making it a federal holiday, the first since the creation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.

Franklin County Board of Commissioners president Kevin Boyce said they made Juneteenth a paid holiday because they wanted to explore ways to reduce poverty and eliminate racism in Franklin County. And looking at how they celebrate holidays was a start.

“1865 was a significant year not just for Black Americans, but for all Americans, because it signifies the first year of freedom for everyone,” Boyce said.

In 2009, the state passed legislation recognizing June 19 as “Juneteenth National Freedom Day,” but not as an official state holiday. Currently, a bill to make it a state holiday awaits approval from the state House of Representatives.

Boyce said their decision to make Juneteenth a paid holiday showed that it’s part of the county’s values and understanding a history that was painful for many Americans.

“In order to reconcile our past, we got to approach the future with the same type of obligation or a semblance of recognition,” Boyce said.

The county commissioners' decision was made only weeks after the murder of George Floyd. And for many, that added to the emotion of this first official year of celebrations.

Kiara Yakita is the founder of Black Liberation Movement of Central Ohio, and they’re hosting their inaugural Juneteenth Jubilee celebration at Goodale Park on Saturday. It’ll include Black-owned food trucks, vendors and musicians.

Yakita said while it’s significant that Juneteenth is being validated by the city, county and now the federal government, that isn’t what's most important to her this year. Instead, it’s coming together a year later after the murder of George Floyd and months of protests to celebrate the first Black liberation in the country.

“We went through a year of back-to-back-to-back trauma, from hearing these stories to being brutalized by police when we protested,” Yakita said.

Columbus Urban League president Stephanie Hightower said the holiday is also significant because it gives everyone an opportunity to recognize and celebrate lives lost in the past year, not just George Floyd’s, but those in Columbus too from violence and COVID-19.

“It gives us an opportunity now to reflect on that, and really see, and celebrate, the resiliency of Black people in this country and community, and give us an opportunity to celebrate that resiliency differently,” Hightower said.

Back in Goodale Park, Yakita said she hopes Juneteenth and the celebrations become something to look forward to and be excited about. She also hopes that people who support their cause see that it’s not just about marches and protests.

“Support Black excellence and happiness with the same vigor that you support protesting Black tragedy and trauma,” Yakita said.