On the nation’s first federally recognized Juneteenth holiday, about 50 people gathered at the Idaho Black History Museum to commemorate the ending of slavery.
The day has been celebrated by many Black Americans for more than 150 years as one of emancipation and hope. President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law on Thursday, and Idaho state agencies were closed on Friday in observance of the new holiday.
On a sunny Saturday morning, a crowd stood in front of the museum, in Boise’s Julia Davis Park, to listen to a man dressed as Abraham Lincoln read quotations from the former president.
“Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves,” said Skip Critell, quoting the 16th president.
The museum’s director, Phillip Thompson, read from Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that slaves living in Confederate states still rebellious against the Union Army were free. He also read from Gov. Brad Little’s own proclamation announcing the holiday on Thursday.
Lincoln’s announcement exempted many slaves from emancipation, and Black people living in Confederate-controlled states remained enslaved. The news reached Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865 — over two years later — when General Gordon Granger announced that the Civil War had ended and that all slaves were free.
The holiday’s modern name, Juneteenth, is a combination of the date’s two words: June and nineteenth.
At Saturday’s celebration, Thompson said he was pleasantly surprised about the new holiday. But he emphasized the importance of concrete social progress, which he said should not be confused with symbolic change.
He told the Idaho Statesman the new holiday is “a beautiful thing … Celebration is important, but that needs to precipitate action.”
He added, “Celebration is a luxury many people don’t have.”
Thompson noted the importance of land ownership, education, and jobs, all of which he said are needed for people of any background to thrive.
“Everything revolves around those three things,” he said.
His mother, Cherie Buckner-Webb, a former state representative and vice chairwoman of the Board of Trustees for the College of Western Idaho, echoed her son’s call for action, noting that in America today, women and people of color still often make less money than white people with similar education levels.
She told the Statesman that the new holiday is an important step in recognizing the contributions Black Americans have made to the country.
“The United States has actually acknowledged a date that has to do with Black folks in particular,” she said. “That’s unheard of in the history of the United States.”
Buckner-Webb added that she thinks the Idaho legislative session this year, which saw the passage of bills that curb the teaching of racial justice and cut funding for state universities over diversity issues, was in part a reaction to changing demographic trends.
“I think the impact was that a lot of white folks were feeling threatened, intimidated and fearful about the growing presence of people of color, not just Black folks … in our country,” she said.
For Thompson, he said that teaching the history of racial discrimination isn’t an effort to make people uncomfortable.
“I can’t be ignorant of the history of a given area and pretend that my perspective of what I know is all that exists,” he said. “Nobody should feel guilty about the sins of their father … but you should be aware of what transpired.”
At the commemoration, a local fitness group, Boise Galloway Training, announced a $1,600 donation to the history museum from the group’s members. The organization held a 10-kilometer race named for the holiday on Saturday morning.
“To be able to do this two days after Juneteenth was made a national holiday was so significant for all of us,” Louise Seeley, the group’s program director, told the Statesman.