Friday was a day to celebrate freedom from enslavement. But Juneteenth arrived this year amid protests over police brutality and systemic racism that revealed a nation still short on a promise of equity for African Americans — but also with a renewed hope the country may someday fulfill that promise.
“This movement is important. This movement is necessary. And I believe that the time is now for change. I see a difference this time,” Cierra Williams told more than 150 people Friday during a celebration at Richard Allen School.
>>PHOTOS: Miami Valley marks Juneteenth
Singing, cheers and chants by students, parents and teachers marked the day in 1865 when news of freedom finally reached Texas — some two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation and more than a month after the Civil War ended.
“Grab a friend, bring them in and let the party begin,” the crowd chanted in unison to begin the citywide Harambee, which means “pull together” in Swahili. The Freedom Schools Movement sponsored the event at the school at 184 Salem Ave. in Dayton.
While it was a day to celebrate and reflect on the Juneteenth’s historical meaning, it was also a day for many young children to see classmates and their educators after months of absence due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I was just really wanted to come here, spend time with my friends, spend time with my teachers and say hi to them and give them hugs,” said Sidney Rivers, a third-grader at Richard Allen.
“We just wanted to bring everybody together, especially in the climate of the Black Lives Matter movement, just to remind our children and ourselves that we are somebody in our lives,” said Williams, the Freedom School program’s site coordinator.
Darren Byrd of Dayton attended with this 13-year-old son Aayon.
In the wake of cases of police brutality, Byrd said he has had the conversation with Aayon that many Black parents have with their children about interacting with police.
“If you’re in the car and you get stopped, no sudden hand movements; no moving around. Be respectful; answer the questions,” he said.
Byrd said a lot of young men his son’s age are “really, really scared and shaken by the police” because they often see only the worst aspects of that job filtered through a single lens. Young Black men rarely have the opportunity to have positive interactions with police to “measure the person, not necessarily his occupation,” he said.
Byrd said he does think this year is a turning point as people — including whites — “sitting on the sidelines come out for the community and try to tie up loose relationships as far as the color line.”
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Trotwood Mayor Mary McDonald, who also attended the Harambee, said more binds Miami Valley residents together than separates them.
“It is a very challenging and trying time, but I think there’s an opportunity for honesty, and for us to get to some areas that have been really hard to talk about,” she said. “A lot of minds are open for those conversations … We’ve been through a lot. We’ve dealt with tornadoes. We’ve dealt with a lot of things, racial and justice. We’ve dealt with the Ku Klux Klan. We’ve had the shooting in the Oregon District. There’s such an opportunity now for us to come together.”
This year’s Juneteenth events also come at a time of concern because the coronavirus pandemic is affecting African Americans at a higher rate than the general population. As of Friday, Blacks accounted for 18% of Ohio’s 2,667 coronavirus deaths though make up roughly 14% of the state’s population.
“A lot of it goes back to the inequities in our healthcare system, and higher incidence of diabetes, heart disease and other existing conditions that made many African Americans more susceptible to the disease,” said U.S. Sen Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who attended the inaugural Juneteenth Celebration Friday at Dayton Early College Academy (DECA) Prep.
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Deaunna Watson organized DECA’s barbecue lunch, which because of the pandemic was drive-through only at the school, 200 Homewood Ave. in Dayton.
Watson, who graduated from DECA in 2011 and now teaches fifth grade at the middle school, said her students are aware of times and sometimes shaken.
“They’re not immune to it because they are on social media. And it is happening right in the heart of their community,” she said. “What I’m sensing from the check ins that I’m having is a lot of anxiety, a lot of not knowing what this means for me as a young Black male or a young Black female in America,” she said. “A lot of the movement does focus on young Black males, which should, but a lot of the young girls are feeling as though we’re overlooking them.”
Like the event at Richard Allen School, the Juneteenth Celebration at DECA Prep featured a voter registration effort.
“It’s important that we vote so that the people that we have in office representing us have our best interests at heart,” she said.
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Jonathan Cain of Dayton said he and his wife have encouraged their two daughters and son in DECA schools to express themselves through writing and music.
Their 12-year-old daughter recently wrote a piece that hit him “right in the heart” about the “anger that she has and how she’s nervous around policing. Will I be next she asked?”
“It was huge because she was able to get it out and it drove our conversation even more,” Cain said. “If she’s feeling this way, how are other kids feeling?”
Juneteenth Festival/Black family cookout
Dayton View Park, corner of N. Broadway Street and Superior Avenue in Dayton
The entire community is invited to a Juneteenth Festival and black family cookout. Organizers ask that attendees wear mask and follow social distancing.