Juneteenth is America’s true freedom day. At least that’s how Kemone Hendricks, organizer of Evanston’s annual Juneteenth parade, views the 19th day of June due to its indelible, albeit unheralded legacy in American history. 

Kemone Hendricks at Evanston’s 2021 Juneteenth celebration.

“Everyone was not free on July 4,” she said. “July 4 was more of a freeing of land, not the people. Only white people were quote unquote free during that time.”

Hendricks explained during an interview earlier this week with the Evanston Roundtable that once she became aware of the history and legacy of Juneteenth, she was inspired to do everything within her capacity to share its rich history and what it represents today.

Last year, the day was declared a federal holiday. Just two days before June 19, President Joseph Biden signed it into law.

“It’s a federal holiday, but unfortunately, even some Black people didn’t know about it because [Juneteenth] wasn’t uplifted and talked about and put into the textbooks like it should have been. It was just Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and all the slaves were free, which is not true,” Hendricks said. “That’s not true history.”

The 157-year history and meaning

The date actually represents the messiness of what happened after the Emancipation Proclamation became law on Jan. 1, 1863. Spreading the news to enslaved people was left to the owners of slaves and often there was no way to enforce freedom, which meant it did not happen.

Kelly E. Navies, Museum Specialist of Oral History at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture Credit: Supplied

June 19 commemorates the date in 1865 when Major General Gordon Granger arrived with Union troops in Galveston, Texas, to tell people not only was the war over, but he and his troops were there to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation.

This was supposedly the last place in Texas to get the news. Yet, it was still not the end of slavery in that era. That took the passage and adoption on Dec. 18, 1865 of the 13th Amendment, which read: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

“I like to think of Juneteenth as a celebration of freedom, of family, and of joy that emerged from this cauldron of the war, ” wrote Kelly E. Navies, Museum Specialist of Oral History at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, on the museum’s website. The celebration within African American communities has waxed and wained over the course of more than 150 years, Navies explained.

“[But] at its very core, Juneteenth is this affirmation that we are here, and we will continue to be here. We will continue to struggle in the face of many challenges.”

Evanston’s celebration

In 2019, Hendricks began her exploration of the holiday by, among other things, talking to two key historic figures, including the late Harry William “Hecky” Powell and Opal Lee, the “Grandmother of Juneteenth.”  

The inaugural Juneteenth parade in Evanston was a result of those conversations. (Although it became a two-hour virtual event in 2020 because of the on-going COVID-19 pandemic.)

But Hendricks said her talks with Powell and Lee inspired her. A local civic leader and business owner, Powell held Juneteenth celebrations in Evanston until his passing in 2020 due to COVID-19 related complications. Lee, who is 95, is a civil rights activist who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for raising public awareness for Juneteenth by walking from Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C.

The two women have stayed in contact, and last Fourth of July, Hendricks hosted a book signing with Lee in Evanston. The relationship between the women also led to this year’s Juneteenth parade in Evanston becoming an official site for the national Opal’s Walk For Freedom.

C&W Market owners Clarence and Wendy Weaver with Juneteenth organizer Kemone Hendricks in 2021.

People can register to walk the two-and-a-half mile route at 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 18, to commemorate the time it took to spread the emancipation news. It starts at the Robert Crown Community Center and will end at the Civic Center with a celebration of music and food at Ingraham Park until 4 p.m.

“We’ll all be walking simultaneously with the grandmother of Juneteenth while she is walking on her own walk in Texas,” said Hendricks. “I signed up Evanston to be a host city and I am really, really excited about that.” 

Dione Sims, the founder and President of Unity Unlimited, the non-profit organization sponsoring Opal’s Walk, told the Roundtable it costs $35 to register with $6.19 of the proceeds going to the construction of National Juneteenth Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, slated to open in 2024.

Sims, who is also Opal Lee’s granddaughter and manager, said she and Lee were “really proud of the support” from Hendricks. “It’s just about celebrating the holiday with the community, with the nation,” she said. The walk will be broadcast on NBC LX’s website and NBC LX on the Peacock streaming service.

More education needed

Hendricks said it is important to continue organizing the Juneteenth parade to ensure Evanston lives up to its values as a city. She told the Roundtable there is room for more education about Juneteenth’s history throughout the city. 

“Evanston is a city that prides itself on equity, diversity, you know, things of that nature, anti-racism. And for us, as a community, to not be celebrating or even acknowledging Juneteenth on a large level seems to me like we are not doing all that we can do,” said Hendricks. 

In response to corporations such as Wal-Mart who have sought to commercialize Juneteenth, Hendrick wants to keep the focus of the day on the African American community. She said although Juneteenth has become a federal holiday it remains a cultural holiday with deeper meaning. 

“This is an opportunity for Black people as a whole to take hold of duties, right? Juneteenth is an opportunity for the white community in an appropriate way as allies, right, as supporters,” she said. “This is really a hallmark for the Black community. So, I don’t believe white people should be trademarking Juneteenth and using it to make a profit because they’ve done that for July 4.”

More information about Evanston’s Juneteenth is available here.

Lee Edwards is a journalist, teacher and manager of The Real Chi, Free Spirit Media’s learning newsroom. He is also an ardent believer in the power of digital media to elevate stories: “I believe digital media is one of the tools we can use to highlight the stories of the underserved and underheard people across the globe. With digital media we can connect, inspire, educate and advocate for a better, more equitable future for everyone.”