This weekend Neighbors of Fountain Park, in collaboration with Centennial Christian Church, hosted their 14th annual Juneteenth Community Celebration in Fountain Park, a tiny pocket park just northeast of the intersection of Delmar and Kingshighway boulevards. For more than a dozen years, this has been St. Louis’ most consistent celebration of Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of race-based chattel slavery in the United States in 1865. The more iconic Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was a war move that only proclaimed as emancipated the enslaved people in the secessionist states – states, needless to say, that no longer recognized the authority of the president who issued the proclamation.
Despite the publication of a posthumous novel of the name by the great Ralph Ellison near the end of the 20th Century, Juneteenth has remained something of a Black community secret. The Neighbors of Fountain Park has kept a public flame lit, the Missouri Historical Society has hosted celebrations, and for years Curtis Faulkner lobbied for a statewide festival in Missouri, but 2020 was the year Juneteenth went mainstream. “Juneteenth 2020 had a different energy because of unprecedented attention on the African-American tradition considering the current racial climate, with allies boldly proclaiming that Black Lives Matter,” Kenya Vaughn reported for us. “Their doing so helped amplify the message that our people have been expressing collectively since long before the Emancipation Proclamation – and General Gordon Granger’s arrival at Galveston two years later that we have commemorated annually for generations.”
Montague Simmons, a veteran local grinder for Black liberation, spoke our community’s feelings well at a Juneteenth People’s Rally outside St. John’s United Church of Christ. “On Juneteenth, we celebrate our resilience,” Simmons said. “It is that will and our ability to build impactful movements of resistance that give shape to what it means to be Black, to be powerful and to be free – unapologetically.” He went on to quote an open letter from Movement For Black Lives National Field Director Karissa Lewis that appeared on ESSENCE.com in commemoration of Juneteenth. Lewis wrote that we celebrate “our unrelenting dedication to Black people, to our own freedom and to each and every victory in the face of constant violence. Our memory is long, but we will always remember and honor our ancestors.”
In St. Louis, we do not need to look back to the 19th or even the 20th century for ancestors of the burgeoning movement for Black liberation we see going mainstream now. The protest organizers of 2020 mobilizing thousands of diverse protestors of police violence against Black people are leading a third wave of 21st century protest in St. Louis. They are renewing righteous energy first put in the streets of Ferguson in 2014 after the police killing of Michael Brown and in the streets of St. Louis in 2017 after the exoneration of killer cop Jason Stockley. Some of those previous organizers are, indeed, ancestors, in the sense that they are no longer living; Darren Seals, to name one Ferguson protestor we lost, was memorialized in a Father’s Day march over the weekend. Some moved away to national platforms. Other Ferguson and Stockley verdict protest organizers are still active locally and organized protests this past weekend. Whether still working among us or tragically departed, we will always remember and honor those who put their bodies in the street and called others to disrupt a status quo maintained by the destruction of Black lives and marginalization of Black destinies.
“Never has there been a time in United States history when the police were not a force of violence against Black people,” Karissa Lewis wrote to and for all of us. “In the South, policing started in the form of slave patrols, whose purpose was to catch and return fugitives from slavery. In Northern states, the first police departments in the mid-1800s quashed labor strikes and riots against the abuses of the wealthy. This is their legacy, their rotten core.” Those who rush to defend, rather than defund, the police at this historic moment are defending violence against Black people, whether they know it or not. We salute the Movement for Black Lives and everyone in the street today for striving to make sure more people know this to be true.
The call to Defund the Police is part of a call for systemic reform of American institutions with an unprecedented commitment to achieve equity. We are demanding not just equality on paper, but equity in the courts, in the protection and enforcement of civil rights, and through the equitable distribution of resources to the African-American community in some form of reparation. Juneteenth is more than a memorial for those we’ve lost in a war we’re still fighting, though it is that. Juneteenth is the renewal of a duty set forth by Assata Shakur in words now chanted on the streets of St. Louis and all over the world: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”