It took Katrina Hill 25 years to discover jubilation in Juneteenth. Before that it was veiled history, obscured by most retellings of America’s past, crowded out by other cultural punctuations from her country’s past.
Four years later, upbeat R&B music pads the air along with the smell of grilled burgers as the 29-year-old is seated at a table in the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute’s outdoor pavilion, exchanging laughs, stories and reflections on how far African Americans have come, and have yet to go since slavery’s formal end 154 years ago.
“Everyone needs to know their history. When you stop talking about it, it goes away,” said Hill, who noted the limited number of Seattle-area celebrations Wednesday. Some took place last weekend, with more scheduled for this weekend.
Hill joins many in Seattle’s black community celebrating Juneteenth as a time for rejoicing freedom’s triumph, while contemplating struggles still unwon.
Officially observed in 46 states and the District of Columbia, Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day enslaved black Texans were finally informed slavery had ended in Confederate states two-and-half years earlier.
In present day, it’s come to signify the cessation of one of the country’s grimmest chapters: millions of black slaves raped, killed, torn from families and debased as property before the Emancipation Proclamation and passage of the 13th Amendment forbidding chattel slavery.
And though Seattle, with its single-digit percentage of black residents, can’t match the grandeur and attendance of festivities held in cities with larger black populations such as Atlanta and Philadelphia, its communities are no less resolute in the necessity to mark Juneteenth.
“We had to do something. It’s really a time to ask if black people are actually free and have nonblack folks interrogate that question for themselves,” said Simone Hamilton, referencing statistics showing more black people are under correctional control than there were enslaved in 1850.
Wishing to honor both past and present, she partnered with friends Dalisa Phillips and Kaysha Witcher, under the banner Black Girls Roller Skate, in hosting a Juneteenth roller skating party at Judkins Park on Wednesday, Juneteenth’s actual observance day.
The theme was deliberate, according to Hamilton, an avid skater, as a way to elevate skating as a method of “self-care” in the black community, and also trumpet a historical note on a day flush with them.
“Roller skating is essential to black culture. Roller rinks were some of the few safe places black people could congregate together pre-civil-rights era,” said Hamilton, who shares similar obscure history in her role as an equity consultant for the Bellevue School District.
“We as a society know that knowledge is power if you’re afforded that privilege,” she said.
Juneteenth functions as a transmitter of that privilege to her and University of Washington sociologist LaShawnDa Pittman, who teaches an undergraduate course on race, equity and public policy.
“I love that we have a holiday commemorating the reality that after two years people in Texas got the news they were free, but the reality is a lot of people still weren’t, even after the legal mandate to end slavery,” says Pittman.
Needing illumination is that many slave owners, cognizant of their disintegrating economic prospects, were forced nearly at gunpoint by Union armies to free their slaves even after the 13th Amendment.
And though slavery officially ended in 1865, anti-blackness (the attitude that black people are inferior to other races) has thrived in the United States, morphing from slavery, to Jim Crow laws enforcing segregation, to mass incarceration of black bodies in prisons, according to Pittman.
“Most of my students, including those of color, don’t know the role public policy historically plays in shaping racial experience,” she said of such modern-day inequities as the sentencing discrepancies between crack versus cocaine users, currently linked at 18 to 1. The latter being mostly white people.
Viewing history through the vantage of the nation’s historically oppressed is a hard task unless one is dedicated to it, Pittman said.
Juneteeth aids in that endeavor, and should elicit greater appreciation, according to Paul Hinton, who owns a barbershop in Skyway primarily serving a black clientele.
“It’s a day to celebrate all we’ve survived as a community despite our setbacks. I really wish there was more awareness of it out here with the younger generation,” says Hinton, 42.
Few of his clients, he said, observe the holiday, attributing the low consciousness to how geographically spread out the Seattle area’s black community is, making it hard to gather and exchange information.
Brenetta Ward, 61, agrees but puts partial blame on her generation for not passing down oral history to subsequent ones.
“Growing up the migration of blacks from the South to the North to look for better opportunities was explained to us, and that there was more to the story than being freed by Abraham Lincoln,” said Ward, who participated in Langston’s Juneteenth celebration.
But it isn’t just black people in need of that history. Juneteenth, she said, is intertwined in the cultural DNA of all Americans.
“You can’t deny that piece of history, whoever you are.”
Whatever our race, in America, “we’re a package deal.”