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With Juneteenth Approaching, Calls for Racial Equality Continue

The Lawmaker Sculpture is one of five statues representing the history of Juneteenth at the Juneteenth Memorial Sculpture Monument at the George Washington Carver Museum, Culture and Genealogy Center in Austin.
The Lawmaker Sculpture is one of five statues representing the history of Juneteenth at the Juneteenth Memorial Sculpture Monument at the George Washington Carver Museum, Culture and Genealogy Center in Austin.
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In some ways, Juneteenth couldn't have fallen at a more appropriate time this year. In others, the timing couldn't be worse.

Juneteenth, which marks the anniversary of the emancipation of the last remaining black slaves in the Confederacy, is Friday. In normal times, the day is usually marked in Dallas with musical performances, cultural events, lectures and a parade in Hamilton Park. Most of those events have been scaled back, moved online or canceled due to the risk of spreading COVID-19.

But this year, the holiday also falls at a time when demonstrators are marching the streets daily in major cities, suburbs and small towns nationwide to protest the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and call for an end to police violence against black people.

"With George Floyd murdered before everybody's eyes, I think people are going to be wanting to celebrate Juneteenth because of what it represents," said Emma Rodgers, curator of the Dallas Civil Rights Museum at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center.

The holiday will be different this year, she said. Rather than hosting its annual celebration with music and food, the community center is holding a drive-up celebration where attendees can pick up free household products, nonperishable foods and hygiene kits. But even at that, Rodgers said she thinks there's more awareness of the holiday this year.

Rodgers said interest in the holiday has waxed and waned over the years, but she thinks it's beginning to grow again. When writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of "The Case for Reparations," testified before Congress on Juneteenth 2019 about the lasting impact of slavery in the United States, it brought renewed interest to the holiday, she said.

Juneteenth, or June 19, marks the date in 1865 when U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger landed in Galveston with a contingent of soldiers and read orders stating that all remaining slaves in Texas were freed, in accordance with the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Abraham Lincoln had signed two years earlier.

"This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection therefore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer," the order read.

Texas and 46 other states, as well as the District of Columbia, observe the day as a state holiday, and there's a movement to make it a national holiday.

Jason Shelton, a sociology professor and director of the University of Texas at Arlington's Center for African American Studies, said he and several of his colleagues have noticed a sharp uptick in interest in Juneteenth this year. Faculty members in positions similar to his at universities across the country have said that, for the first time ever, they're getting calls from reporters asking about the history and significance of the holiday.

Shelton said that increased interest is a reflection of the national mood. Floyd's killing has galvanized Americans in a way that no other police killing has, he said. Even Eric Garner, whose 2014 death bears striking similarities to Floyd's — both men could be heard on video gasping out the words "I can't breathe" as police officers asphyxiated them to death — didn't generate the level of outrage that Floyd's killing has created.

Shelton said he thinks part of the difference may come from the coronavirus pandemic. More people are at home watching cable news than would be during normal times, and because families are spending more time at home together, they're more likely to talk about Floyd's death and the protests.

The video itself also plays a role, Shelton said. Although previous police killings have been caught on video, the footage of Floyd's death shows his face as he gasps for air and calls out for his late mother in the minutes before he dies, as well as Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin casually pressing his knee into Floyd's neck as onlookers plead with him to stop.

"We watched this man die in a different way," Shelton said.

Donald Payton, a Dallas historian and president of the African American Genealogical Interest Group, uses stronger words when he describes the video of Floyd's death.

"Everybody saw a lynching firsthand," Payton said. "It was no doubt."

Payton said he's seen interest in Juneteenth come and go over the decades. In the years that followed desegregation, black Americans began to feel as though they were being accepted into mainstream culture, he said, and many of them seemed less interested in celebrating the holiday.

But Payton said he's certain there's a renewed interest in the holiday now. As Americans continue to demand an end to the mistreatment of black people, Payton hopes they'll continue to embrace Juneteenth and what it stands for.

"It all boils down to America being free," Payton said. "Everybody should celebrate Juneteenth."

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