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JUNETEENTH: An American Story

“This year, as a United States Diplomat, I celebrated Juneteenth in the Middle East.”

June 19th 1865, was the day the last enslaved Black Americans in the United States were informed they were free. President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which legally freed Black Americans. Yet, two and a half years later, they were still enslaved by their oppressors who withheld the information so they could keep their labor force and wallets intact. Their freedom had to be enforced by Union soldiers with a bloody battle in Galveston Texas.

As a little girl, I was introduced to Juneteenth through my parents. My first vivid memory of Juneteenth was watching my mother carefully adorn my two sisters in dresses, lace socks, and patent leather shoes. I was only three years old at the time, too young to participate in the singing practices with the neighborhood girls of all shades The girls performed the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice,” to kick off an evening of food, dancing, music, and oratorical performances.

My parents struggled to continue the Juneteenth celebration for years. Tampa’s then Mayor, Sandy Freeman, recognized their endeavors with a proclamation in 1993. My favorite part of the evening was the African-attire fashion show, which paid homage to our roots.

Looking back, I recognize that many of the people who attended the Juneteenth celebrations, and who bought African-American flag lapel pins from my father, became the members of my village—those who encouraged me and exposed me to opportunities necessary to develop my character as a leader.

L-R: Samanthia Paris, Nexxt, Tony Theodate, Chiquita Nicholson, unknown, Joyce Turner, Wanda Lewis Campbell, Donald Dowridge, Melissia Melvin

For my family, Juneteenth was and will always be an important tradition. It’s a day that allowed us to freely share our God-given gifts, our food, and our culture in a safe space. As the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States, it fills me with a sense of pride to celebrate this day annually and abroad. It is a reminder of who we were and all that we have overcome as a people despite the incessant injustices we’ve had to face.

As we celebrate Juneteenth, we must all acknowledge the struggle for equality for Black Americans continues. Juneteenth is not just “Black history,” it’s American history. In the words of James Weldon Johnson who penned the Black National Anthem, “Let us march on ‘til victory is won.”

By: Kindall 'Sunshine' Hayes

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