Light rain and gray skies did not stop about 70 people from gathering at Depot Park Saturday morning for a 3.1-mile walk to end Gainesville’s “Journey to Juneteenth” celebration.
Among the crowd was Robin Fall, a 61-year-old Gainesville realtor who said she felt it was her duty to go on the walk to pay homage to her ancestors and Americans who sacrificed their lives to pave the way for freedom.
“We've come a long way, and we've got a long way to go,” she said. “It's an opportunity for the nation to fill in some of the blanks in history.”
Juneteenth is celebrated on June 19 and commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers rode into Galveston, Texas, with news that the Civil War was over, and the enslaved became free.
After President Joe Biden signed a bill Thursday designating June 19 as a federal holiday, the city of Gainesville followed suit by passing a motion at a commission meeting on the same day to make it an official holiday. Prior to June 17, the holiday was only recognized at the state and local level by all but one state.
Gainesville’s Journey to Juneteenth has constituted a month-long series of online and in-person events beginning on Florida’s Emancipation Day, May 20, with a raising of the red and blue Juneteenth flag, which depicts a white star in the center, at city hall. It culminated on Juneteenth with a Freedom Walk at Depot Park.
Lana Stacey and her dog, Ceaser, joined about 20 other Gainesville residents, community leaders and city officials who attended the flag raising on May 20 at city hall where speakers talked about the history of Florida’s Emancipation Day.
The 65-year-old neurology technician and Gainesville resident said she was excited to learn from the Journey to Juneteenth events.
“[There’s] still stuff to learn for me as well because we didn’t have it in high school and middle school,” she said.
George Cannon, the director of operations for downtown Gainesville, raised the Juneteenth flag. The 62-year-old said the event was educational, and he believes ceremonies like this are important.
“I didn't know much about it before,” he said. “These ceremonies are important for that reason. It's very important that we understand each other's cultures.”
Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe said he has hopes to grow the journey into a huge regional event over the next several years.
“It’s a series of events to help our neighbors here in Gainesville understand that journey and understand not just what happened at that point in time but really an opportunity to talk about the much longer and more difficult journey that our Black and Brown neighbors have gone through the last 400 years,” he said.
The Gainesville Regional Utilities Chief Inclusion Officer Yvette Carter is a member of the team that planned the events for Journey to Juneteenth, and she said the team wanted to truly acknowledge and honor Florida’s Emancipation Day.
“Journey to Juneteenth is really time to explore the history, not the history that we've been taught, but accurate history,” she said. “But also to just truly celebrate the contributions, the accomplishments and the resilience of the Africans who first came here in 1619 and their descendants all the way until today.”
Not everyone agrees with the decision to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday, however.
Vivian Filer, the founder of the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center, said she believes celebrating Florida’s Emancipation Day is more important than Juneteenth as a Florida resident.
“It means memories; it means history; it means foundation; it means village,” she said. “It means a starting point for all of us in these ancestors; it means finding our essence, who we are, what led us where we are now.”
Making Juneteenth a federal holiday was a mistake she said, and instead, Freedom Day should be celebrated in December because that was when the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, was ratified.
Althemese Barnes, the founder of the John G. Riley Museum in Tallahassee, praised the collective efforts of Black people toward emancipation and civil rights in a Zoom panel called “Created Equal: Stretching Towards Freedom, A Conversation about Florida Day” held May 20.
“The strength of the wolf is in the pack,” Barnes said. “That’s what you call community organizing; somebody’s got to be that but you gotta have those backups.”
Lincoln High School alumni gathered on June 12 to march part way around Abraham Lincoln Middle School to commemorate the last graduating class of LHS before schools in Gainesville integrated in 1970.
The march ended at Lincoln Middle’s auditorium, and various alumni and community members spoke about how they learned lessons and built bonds at LHS that carried them through life.
Janice Henry said she and her five brothers all attended Lincoln High School.
“We had really great teachers here at Lincoln,” the 67-year-old said. “From our teachers, we learned social skills, how to prepare for jobs.”
Current students are finding their own way to learn about the history of emancipation through their families and Gainesville’s Juneteenth events.
At the Freedom Walk, Michelle Dorlean, a 34-year-old Newberry resident, brought her two children, Jaqecia and Journey, to educate them about their family’s struggle for freedom.
“I always try to tell them about the things that our family had to go through, especially with my parents,” she said. “Just taking this opportunity to kind of give them that in-person experience, and educate them I feel is a way to make them better appreciate what they have to see where we've come from.”
Jaqecia, an 11-year-old student from Oak View Middle School going into seventh grade, said she participated in the walk to show her pride for Black lives and the struggle Black people still endure.
“Even though slavery ended, Black people are still treated differently so for me it's like taking big steps to change,” she said.
Matt Bowman, a 50-year-old attendee and cofounder 100 Black Men of Greater Florida, said Florida cities are playing catch up, but the walk spoke volumes about the city’s commitment to inclusion.
“It’s about learning about these things at home first, and then taking them to your community,” he said. “Now as a nation, we’ll be teaching this in schools, so it won’t just be for activists and the families and children of activists, but it’d be for everyone to learn about the rich history of our country.”
Willie Burney, a 79-year-old resident from Midlothian, Virginia, said he attended the walk with his daughter who he was visiting for Father’s Day. He said he wants more people to become educated on the oppression endured by the African American community beyond just celebrations.
“I want to see what happens not just today, but tomorrow, the day after and the future,” Burney said.