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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Oakland celebrates Juneteenth amid attacks on education about Black history

Celebrations of Black history and movements for justice have a long history in Oakland, where events commemorating Juneteenth last for more than one day.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Residents of Oakland, California, commemorated Juneteenth in celebrations with dancing and cooking, and conversations about preserving civil rights and remembering Black history.

The Oakland Museum of California hosted a party Wednesday, including live musicians and cooks, in celebration of the federal holiday.

Juneteenth commemorates the emancipation of enslaved people following the end of the Confederacy on June 19, 1865, months after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. It also recognizes the impacts of slavery on Black Americans and the need for racial justice.

Hundreds of people chose to celebrate the day in Oakland, including the city's residents, leaders, artists and entrepreneurs, at the event called “Hella Juneteenth: The Cookout.” One of the festival’s sponsored chefs, Byron Hughes of the Last Supper Society, said that he was excited to serve soul food dishes like barbecue and macaroni and cheese after having cooked in Oakland for six years. 

Hundreds of people filled the Oakland Museum of California for the "Hella Juneteenth" music and food event in Oakland, Calif. (Natalie Hanson / Courthouse News)

Now that he cooks in Sacramento, he said of Oakland: “It was the most transformative time in my career here. It’s a whole different caliber of cooking."

“Now that Juneteenth has gotten its due as a federal holiday, any way I can help push that forward, I’m down for that,” Hughes added.

The mood was more reflective and somber elsewhere in Oakland. The historic West Oakland has been the site of several monuments to the city’s rich history of revolutionary movements, celebrating Black history, including Juneteenth long before the holiday became federally recognized. 

Jilchristina Vest keeps the doors of the Black Panther Party Mini Museum open each day, welcoming visitors from across the country Wednesday. The day marked exactly three years since she founded the museum as part of the West Oakland Mural Project — the nation's first to educate people about the Black Panther Party’s influence around the world. 

Jilchristina Vest describes why she founded the Black Panther Party Mini Museum in Oakland, Calif. (Natalie Hanson / Courthouse News)

While another similar museum opened last spring in downtown Oakland, Vest said she is proud that hers was the first, and focuses specifically on the Black Panther movement and history — not what happened to its leaders during the federal government's crackdown efforts in the 1970s.

“Many people travel to Oakland specifically to visit the museum,” Vest said. She said visitors from out of state are most often from Chicago, Texas or Florida, and international visitors tend to be from Brazil, Australia and New Zealand. 

That struck a chord for Caroline Washington, who said she is Tongan and brought her children to the museum partly because of the Black Panthers’ influence on what became the Polynesian Panther Party in New Zealand. 

“It’s important to me that they see their history, and also how it’s inspired different revolutionary movements around the world,” Washington said. "We really want them to be immersed in their community. I really find that this is very empowering for them.”

When she asked her children what they learned from their first time at the museum, Amour, who is in third grade, said she was struck by the Black Panther’s mascot. She pointed to a sign stating that the panther fights only when provoked, and never attacks first. 

“I just think it’s interesting. They were only trying to protect themselves and bring peace to the world,” Amour said. 

Her sister Seoni, who is in seventh grade, said she appreciated seeing pieces of Black Panther history in person while reading "Angela Davis: An Autobiography."

“It shows what they actually wanted, that they still want change,” she said. “It shows things we can do, and reminds us of what was actually done.”

Amour Washington, center, and her sister Seoni, right, tell their mother Caroline Washington about what they noticed at the Black Panther Party Mini Museum in Oakland, Calif. (Natalie Hanson / Courthouse News)

Civil rights and justice organizations across the country Wednesday released statements noting that since 2021, 18 states have passed laws to restrict teaching students about Black history and institutionalized racism and slavery — which could include the events of Juneteenth.

Those legal efforts are particularly concentrated in Republican-led states, with governors in Alabama and Utah signing laws restricting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in higher education, K-12 schools and throughout state governments.

Republican governors in Idaho and Wyoming also signed legislation this year restricting the use of state funds for equity efforts at higher education institutions, and Idaho and Indiana prohibited the use of statements promoting racial equity in employment and admissions decisions at public colleges and universities.

Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott signed two bills into law last year banning public colleges and universities from maintaining an office of diversity, equity and inclusion and mandating staff to take diversity training or provide statements describing their commitment to diversity. 

But those efforts have also reached California, where a judge refused to block an Inland Empire school district's prohibition on the teaching of critical race theory.

"Juneteenth does not denote a struggle completed or a finish line reached,” said the Equal Justice Initiative — a nonprofit organization based in Montgomery, Alabama, that provides legal representation to prisoners — in a statement. “Black Americans faced many threats to their liberty and their lives in the years after the Civil War, and face continued injustice still.”

Vest said that she hopes people will see monuments to historically Black movements for justice and reform as needing more visibility, not less.

“When we opened, I remember saying I’m proud to be the first ever, but I better not be the last,” she said. 

Oaklanders can also celebrate Juneteenth on Saturday at two events. The West Oakland Mural Project hosts a block party by the museum at Center and 9th Streets, offering free food, crafts, DJs and dancing. The 17th annual B-H Brilliant Minds Project Inc. street festival, called “Reaching for Wholeness, One Love, One Liberation," takes place further north in West Oakland with R&B, rap and gospel performers, a fashion show and local food.

Follow @nhanson_reports
Categories / Arts, History, Regional

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