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caption: Ramon Bryant Braxton directs a rehearsal with the choir of the One Seattle Juneteenth Celebration on Thursday, June 16, 2022 
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Ramon Bryant Braxton directs a rehearsal with the choir of the One Seattle Juneteenth Celebration on Thursday, June 16, 2022
Credit: KUOW photo/Kate Walters

Embracing Juneteenth. A time for reflection, education, celebration, and action

Although it’s been celebrated by the Black community for more than 150 years, this year marks the first time Juneteenth will be observed as an official state holiday in Washington.

It commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S. June 19, 1865, is the day the Union army arrived in Galveston, Texas and announced that enslaved people in the state were free.

While some enslavers were aware of the Emancipation Proclamation, it took two and a half years for it to be enforced by the arrival of the Union army, according to Mary Elliott, curator of American Slavery at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Celebrations are taking place throughout the Seattle area, including the One Seattle Juneteenth Celebration, at McCaw Hall Auditorium on Sunday evening.

Ramón Bryant Braxton is the artistic director and conductor for the event. He said it’s designed to capture hundreds of years of the Black experience in America through a wide range of music.

Braxton said as he reflects on the holiday, he’s thinking about not only the past but also what’s needed in the future.

"Even though Juneteenth commemorates freedom from slavery, I think we have a lot more things in our community that we need to be liberated from today," Braxton said.

"Liberation from social injustice,” he said. “Liberation from fear of those who are charged to protect and serve us, liberation from economic disparity, inequality."

Chandler Williams is a member of the choir that will be performing during the One Seattle Juneteenth Celebration.

He said he hopes that greater recognition of the holiday spurs education among the broader community.

He hopes people will understand the significance of Juneteenth, and the music featured on Sunday, which included a wide span of hymns, spirituals and popular music that Williams said helped keep Black people alive and hopeful.

"So even now that there's even more work for us to do and more recovery for us to do as a nation and as a culture, I hope that these same songs can continue to keep us alive, and that we can take a moment and reflect that these were the same songs that kept them alive," he said.

Fellow choir member Martha Nash said the fact that Juneteenth is finally being more widely recognized makes her feel like there's hope.

"This is a new beginning and so we're seeing better days, you know, hopefully," Nash said.

For many, the hope is that the recognition of this holiday can go beyond the symbolic, and spur real action and change.

LaNesha DeBardelaben is the president and CEO of the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM). She said Juneteenth is an opportunity for education, conversation, transformation and action.

DeBardelaben said Juneteenth was a historic moment, which became a cultural holiday, and has now become a federal and state holiday.

“As we look at the evolution of Juneteenth, we are hopeful that this will truly be an opportunity and a time for reflection, remembrance, and renewal," she said. "That we will truly, as an American people, look within and recommit ourselves to what, and who, we can be and we should be as a society."

As holiday is recognized across Washington and the US, DeBardelaben said she doesn’t want to see it commercialized.

“We want to be sure that the Juneteenth holiday is always seen as the sacred moment that it is,” she said. “These were lives that were enslaved for two and a half years beyond their emancipation. So, this is a very solemn, a very sacred, a very serious history that we are reflecting upon.”

DeBardelaben said this history should not be trivialized.

“It is a very present opportunity for us to really strive towards becoming our best selves, individually and collectively, but that will only happen if we embrace Juneteenth for what it truly is and what it deeply is, and that is that it is a part of American history that is a part of all of us.”

NAAM organized a weeklong set of celebrations to commemorate the holiday, culminating in a community skate party on Sunday.

Many other organizations have also organized events in the Seattle area.