MONROE — Growing up in a predominately Black community, Junelle Lewis remembers heading out to the neighborhood park for a cookout every year when Juneteenth rolled around.
“Because we know what we’re celebrating,” Lewis told The Daily Herald. “But in this community, because of the lack of knowledge and lack of education, we focus more on educating the people.”
On Saturday, dozens braved the rain at Monroe’s Skykomish River Park and Snohomish’s Willis Tucker Park to share stories and songs, barbecue and learn more about the nation’s youngest federal holiday. Lewis helped organize the Monroe event in coordination with Monroe Equity Council. The NAACP of Snohomish County helped organize the Snohomish event.
On June 19, 1865, over two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, Gordon Granger, a Union general, arrived in Galveston, Texas. There he signed an order telling enslaved African Americans that they were free.
State Sen. John Lovick’s great-great grandfather Thomas Holden was the son of slaves, Lovick told a Snohomish crowd Saturday.
“He shared with us stories about having brothers and sisters he never met,” Lovick said. “They were sold before he was born.”
The holiday has always deeply touched Lovick, he said, but it wasn’t until 2020, after the prominent police killings of Black Americans including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor that he began to see others paying attention. “2020 gave us perfect vision,” Lovick said. “It showed us the inequities that exist in our society.”
John Agyapong, treasurer of the Snohomish County NAACP, was born in the West African country of Ghana. His first Juneteenth celebration was here, in Snohomish, about a decade ago.
He’s happy to see a greater societal awareness and interest in the holiday, but Agyapong said he’s worried the meaning could get lost if education doesn’t go hand-in-hand with the celebration.
“I really hope this doesn’t become like Cinco De Mayo,” Agyapong said. “I don’t want this to be another day for people to go buy furniture. I really hope that the triumphant message of people who heard that slavery was over — years after it was over — I hope that message is never lost.”
In Monroe, it was a day of recognition, restoration and celebration.
Lewis’ smile widened as her voice harmonized with her kids Tamara Grigsby and Jayden Hill in the singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also referred to as the Black National Anthem.
She invited parents, elected officials and student leaders to the stage to share stories of hope, resilience and the inequities that persist.
Raylin Lucey, student support advocate at the Monroe School District, performed chilling spoken word about living in fear.
“I wake up many mornings wondering what will happen if this is the day that I don’t return home to my little girl,” he said. “I am worried that will happen if and when I’m the next Black man on the news who ran on the wrong road, or reached for his wallet too quickly on a routine traffic stop, or walked though the store and was gunned down while I was shopping. I worry: Will I come home today?”
His poem continued, calling on leaders to protect school staff like himself who fear the looming threat of violence as they come to campus each day, and to help the students who feel they have to leave their communities and schools to find a safe place.
Banners and signs posted around the Monroe park shared art, stories of the holiday’s past, describing early celebrations that could not be held in public and sharing quotes from African American leaders throughout history.
“When we bring more light to exactly what Juneteenth is and what African Americans have been going through, in turn, it makes people have a different perspective,” Lewis said. “You won’t see yourself going through so many racial incidents or whatnot. They do most of the stuff they do because they aren’t educated. They’re ignorant to the fact other people exist and this is what they went through.”
This year, Linda Redmon became maybe the first Snohomish mayor to formally recognize the holiday. “Juneteenth, like Independence Day on the 4th of July, is a celebration of freedom that is important to our community and country,” Redmon said earlier this year.
Kay Barnes from the city of Everett and Annie Cole from Snohomish County read Juneteenth proclamations at the Snohomish gathering on behalf of Mayor Cassie Franklin and County Executive Dave Somers.
“We’re in this space now that our elected leaders have made these proclamations in hopes that there will be a full embracing of our shared humanity,” said Kathy Purviance, a Snohomish teacher and a member of Snohomish for Equity. “African Americans helped to build this country and were never really recognized or compensated for their contributions to the foundation of American society. I’m hopeful that we will continue to build on what has begun here.”