Monday, March 20, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Revelers and Protesters Gather in DC to Celebrate the Day the Last Slaves Were Freed

On Friday, in Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C., just a few hundred yards from the White House — itself built by enslaved men and women — demonstrators and revelers alike gathered by the hundreds.

WASHINGTON (CN) — George Floyd — killed by a Minneapolis police officer on Memorial Day — attended Jack Yates High School in Houston, a school named after a former enslaved man who would later purchase a public park where Juneteenth is still celebrated today. 

Enslaved men, Jack Yates, Richard Allen, Richard Brock and Elias Dibble purchased Emancipation Park in Houston for $800 in 1872.

The transaction came eight years after Union soldiers, led by Gordon Ranger, armed to the teeth, marched through nearby Galveston, Texas, some 50 miles from where George Floyd once called home. 

Union soldiers would finally enforce the Emancipation Proclamation for all remaining slaves in the state.

Known as “General Order No. 3,” beyond emancipation, the edict enforced “absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor.”

Friday marks the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, and the reverberating effects of slavery, struggles of the 20th century Jim Crow Era and the systemically racist residue left clinging to a broad swath of American institutions has propelled protesters and lawmakers to broach conversations about transformative change. 

“I was not taught about Juneteenth until I arrived in Texas and actually experienced Juneteenth,” Representative Al Green, D-Texas, told Courthouse News Friday.

Born in Louisiana — and a self-proclaimed son of the segregated south — Green’s education on Juneteenth came by way of his longtime friend, the 13-term Texas State Representative Al Edwards. 

Edwards, a Democrat, made Juneteenth a paid holiday for state employees in 1979. He died in April. 

On Friday, in Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C., just a few hundred yards from the White House — itself built by enslaved men and women — demonstrators and revelers alike gathered by the hundreds. 

During a Juneteenth celebration in Washington, D.C., young children perform a “call and response” as they spell out the words “power” and share what their strengths are with a diverse crowd of revelers and protesters. (Courthouse News Photo / Brandi Buchman and Jack Rodgers)

A large group of cyclists rolled into Lafayette Square Friday afternoon protesting the death of Floyd and those before him, promising their rides would continue through the summer, their goal to occupy the district’s streets until demands are heard. 

Others like Ox Oz, an attorney who came downtown to uplift and empower in celebration of Juneteenth, leading dances and songs with young and old and calling those gathered to “pull together” in pursuit of a more just and equal society. 

“It’s important to be out here and to feel that energy and be reenergized for this marathon that we’re about to get on. This is not going to be over tomorrow,” Oz said. “We have to make sure we’re all free and that’s what Juneteenth was about. It wasn’t over until everyone was free. Police brutality, the injustices, it’s not over until everyone has that freedom and respect, God given.”

The determination of demonstrators is not lost on federal lawmakers. 

“I do believe that what started as a moment of action ... the Black Live Matter actions that took place, has become a movement,” Green said, noting that it has reached into “corporate personalities” and resulted in an about face from the NFL. 

“It is so pervasive now that it has taken on the proverbial life of its own. It’s growing exponentially,” he said.

For the lawmaker, the next step is to execute some of the demands laid out by Black Lives Matter and “augment” it with a federal watchdog.  

“The movement can go on and we can’t say how long but if we can get a Department of Reconciliation, it will promote the continuation of the movement,” Green said.

The proposed cabinet level-department would be staffed with a secretary just like other federal agencies such as the Department or Education or the Department of Defense. Under the proposed legislation, which has 22 cosponsors, the Reconciliation Department would be funded through 10% of the Defense Department’s overall budget.

In that office, Green noted, a strategy could be developed to “eliminate racism and invidious discrimination” and by funding it this way, it’s less likely to be “starved to death.” 

Oz, the Washington attorney at Black Lives Matter Plaza who provided rhythmic background on a drum for revelers, envisions a future that would bestow equity upon more black Americans. 

Ox Oz, an attorney, came to celebrate Juneteenth in Washington, Friday often leading a call for young children gathered to empower themselves through education. (Courthouse News Photo / Brandi Buchman and Jack Rodgers)

Literacy in America is essential, he added and normalizing a culture that elevates education, academia and having intelligent dialogue is “non-negotiable” in a first world country like America.

“Ella Baker, she said it best, she said ‘Give people light and they’ll find a way,’ because she believed that strong people don’t need strong leaders,” Oz said. “The information is out there, let’s have a dialogue and let's be constructive. We need to study our history and we need to study what’s happening now, as well.”

The House-sponsored George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is expected to hit a wall in the Republican-controlled Senate next week. 

An amalgam of police-reform legislation, featuring a federal ban on the use of chokeholds, a modification of qualified immunity and litany of other targeted meliorations, was debated at length during a Judiciary hearing ahead of Juneteenth. 

Without a single Republican vote, it advanced and headed to the House for a full vote in the coming days. 

The Senate equivalent known as the JUSTICE Act, attempts to incentivize the ban of chokeholds for local police departments. However, the bill only stipulates that departments are ineligible for federal grant funding if their locality doesn’t enact a policy against carotid holds. The House bill bans their use outright. 

For Green, incentivizing the police to “do the right thing,” isn’t as beneficial as mandating it into law. 

“I dread to think what would have happened. Where would I be? Where would you be, if you tried to incentivize the South to abandon slavery?” Green reflected. “We did not incentivize the South to let people go and free slaves. It took a war to free people from bondage. We come from slavery but it was from freeing them, women being raped and killed, from parents having their children ripped away from them and sold on the auction block.”

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.