Joe Kings was used to big Juneteenth celebrations in Texas, where community parties centered on food, music, family and honoring the day when the last enslaved people in the state were granted their freedom.
Then he moved to Maine.
“When I got here, I didn’t see any of that,” he said. “I said ‘Let’s start it.’”
Kings, who moved to Portland while serving in the Army, opened his car detailing business, Ultimate Car Care, in 1995 and threw his first Juneteenth party the following year. The annual event has grown into a large celebration that has helped introduce the tradition and significance of Juneteenth to many in the community.
This year, as Kings gathers with family and friends, Juneteenth is being celebrated for the first time as a federal and state holiday.
On Thursday, President Biden signed into law a measure that establishes Juneteenth as a federal holiday. While signing the bill in a ceremony that included members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Opal Lee, a 94-year-old Texas woman who campaigned for the holiday, Biden said a national commemoration of Juneteenth should compel the nation to work to achieve equality in education, economics and other areas.
While the legislation to establish Juneteenth National Independence Day moved quickly through Congress this week, legislation to address voting rights issues and institute policing reforms demanded after the killing of George Floyd and other unarmed Black men remains stalled. Some also are pushing for the federal government to make reparations or financial payments to the descendants of slaves in an attempt to compensate for those wrongs.
“This day doesn’t just celebrate the past. It calls for action today,” Biden said in his remarks.
Gov. Janet Mills also signed a law last week designating June 19 each year as Juneteenth and as a paid holiday on which all nonessential state offices must be closed. That takes effect in 2022. Massachusetts and Louisiana took similar steps in recent weeks to make Juneteenth an official state holiday.
Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, sponsored the bill and said during testimony to a legislative committee that Juneteenth “does not celebrate one day in just one place, but instead it recognizes the harsh experiences of all those who were enslaved. The mothers, fathers, children and siblings who toiled in Maine’s soil and built Maine’s economy without enjoying their own freedom.”
“Through this holiday, we can teach about and discuss Maine’s history with slavery and its lasting effects on our culture and communities. We can uncover this history that has been forgotten. And finally, we can honor our past as we also move forward,” she said.
While many Black Americans have celebrated the new designation as a federal holiday, others say that they appreciate the recognition at a time of racial reckoning but that more is needed to change policies that disadvantage people of color.
Republican-led states have enacted or are considering legislation activists say could curtail the right to vote, particularly for people of color. At the same time, there are efforts across the country to limit what school districts teach about the history of slavery in America.
“The irony is that this resolution just ran through Congress very quickly at the same time you have people trying to suppress the education of African American history,” said Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies at Colby College.
Despite that, recognizing Juneteenth Independence Day as a federal holiday will “generate conversation about African American history and the discovery that it is a lot more complex than we realize,” said Gilkes, who also is an assistant pastor at Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“It will generate more conversation, even if it’s just answering the question, ‘How come they get another holiday?’” she said.
The Emancipation Proclamation took effect at the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 1863, as enslaved and free African Americans were gathered in churches and homes awaiting news that enslaved people in Confederate states were declared legally free. But not everyone would be freed immediately because it could not be implemented in places still under Confederate control.
Freedom in those areas finally came on June 19, 1865, when Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to issue an order that not only freed enslaved people, but gave them the full rights of personhood, including to own property. The following year, the first Juneteenth was celebrated in churches and homes, Gilkes said.
While the push to make Juneteenth an official holiday has spread only in recent decades, it has been “serious business” all along in Texas, which was the first state to make it a holiday, in 1980, Gilkes said. The tradition of celebrating the day with barbecues, red punch and music spread across the United States as Texans moved to other areas, she said.
“It’s a recognition there’s been a Texas diaspora throughout the country,” Gilkes said.
Kings was not surprised to find few people knew about Juneteenth when he moved to Maine. But that’s changed over the years and the annual parties he started hosting grew from just a handful of people to more than 600 people during a two-day celebration in 2003. He said he has always had support from neighbors, friends and other business owners.
At each Juneteenth party, Kings and others take time to share the history and significance of the day. He talks about the moment Granger arrived in Galveston and how “people were shouting the news from the rooftops that we are free, we are free, we are free,” Kings said.
He also reflects on the many enslaved people who died during the two and a half years when they should have been free. And he remembers his great-great-great-grandmother, Lucy Rowland, who was enslaved. A photo of her hangs on the wall above his desk.
Lucy Rowland was born in Virginia and was a slave of Henry Harper, who brought her to Arkansas, according to a statement she made in 1936. She was bought on July 21, 1845, for $425 when she was 23. She later married Albert Rowland, who was also enslaved, and they had two children.
“It’s very meaningful to me and I carry it with me,” Kings said of his family’s history.
For the past few years, the focus of the Juneteenth gathering has been as a smaller family reunion, but Kings is going big again this year and expects around 100 people to spread out in his garage and the adjacent field and parking lot. He encouraged everyone to make sure they were vaccinated and calls the Juneteenth party “a great incentive.”
On Thursday, he closed his business for the day to start getting ready. He planned to hang T-shirts from each of the past 25 Juneteenth parties on the wall and fill the garage with tables for food. Outside, he set up a DJ booth, corn hole, ping pong, volleyball and a bounce house.
Kings planned to be up and cooking shortly after dawn on Saturday morning. This year, he’ll smoke 30 racks of baby back ribs – his specialty – and friends will bring 50 pounds of Jamaican jerk chicken, 40 pounds of fried chicken wings and 40 smoked turkey legs. With the music cranked up and children playing around him, Kings said he’ll enjoy every second of carrying on the tradition with his friends.
“This is the perfect platform to bring people together. It’s been a really good teaching platform to work from,” Kings said. “It has been an exciting journey.”