Athena Lynch never has much to celebrate on the Fourth of July.

Given what she calls “loopholes” in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – those omissions, clauses and other laws that have kept black Americans enslaved, segregated and otherwise persecuted through the centuries – July Fourth is “just another day” to her.

But as a proud Afro-American, Lynch has always celebrated “Freedom Day” on June 19, a holiday widely recognized among black Americans as Juneteenth.

“It’s the day my ancestors and people who look like me got their independence,” said Lynch, 40, of Portland. “It came at a high price, but it was a step in the right direction.”

Athena Lynch, an artist and social activist, is organizing an arts gathering to commemorate Juneteenth on Friday at Congress Square Park in Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Lynch is one of many Mainers who will mark the holiday this weekend with renewed purpose and fresh awareness after recent high-profile police killings of African Americans and the resulting global protests calling for criminal justice reform and an end to systemic racism.

An artist and social activist, Lynch is organizing a Juneteenth arts event from 3-6 p.m. Friday at Congress Square Park in Portland. A separate Juneteenth rally is scheduled to be held from 3-9 p.m. Friday starting at Portland City Hall and ending at Deering Oaks.

Juneteenth commemorates the day that the last slaves still living in bondage in the United States learned they were free. It happened on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, where Union Gen. Gordon Granger read General Order No. 3, which said “all slaves are free” by proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862, more than a year into the Civil War, and it went into effect Jan. 1, 1863. But it wasn’t until after the war ended, in the spring of 1865, that Union troops traveled to the hinterlands of southwest Texas and Granger announced publicly that the proclamation would be enforced.

“You had people being kept enslaved until their harvests were finished,” Lynch said. “In some ways little has changed. Black bodies are still being prosecuted and persecuted in the same way.”

In 2011, Maine became the 38th state to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday, under legislation sponsored by former Democratic state Rep. Denise Harlow of Portland.

It requires the governor to issue a yearly proclamation designating the third Saturday in June as “Juneteenth Independence Day to commemorate the day freedom was proclaimed to all slaves in the South.”

Gov. Janet Mills issued a proclamation declaring Saturday to be Juneteenth in Maine, commemorating “the strength and determination of African Americans who were first brought to American soil in the hulls of slave ships” and celebrating “the rich heritage and accomplishments of African Americans.”

First celebrated in Austin, Texas, in 1867, Juneteenth is now recognized in every state except Hawaii as an official holiday or day of observance. It remains unrecognized as a national holiday despite past efforts to gain federal acceptance.

On Thursday, several U.S. senators announced they would be introducing legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, said Thursday she is developing legislation that would make Juneteenth a paid state holiday and she believes it should be a national holiday as well.

“It’s the day emancipation really took place,” Talbot Ross said. “This is not just black history. This is American history. It should be a paid state holiday and it should be a national holiday.”

Talbot Ross said she is preparing other bills that would change place names related to Mainers who were tied to the slave trade, including ship builders and captains, and would go further in removing place names that include racial slurs.

“The change that’s beginning to happen is absolutely encouraging,” Talbot Ross said. “It finally feels like we’re moving in the right direction. But we should not stop here. We must continue to move forward.”

Also on Thursday, the Maine Democratic Party announced it will close its offices Friday in recognition of Juneteenth.

“Our country has not adequately reckoned with our history of racism and the ongoing inequalities for marginalized groups in every facet of our daily lives,” said Kathleen Marra, party chairwoman. “Giving our staff, supporters, and volunteers space to honor Juneteenth, educate ourselves, take part in celebrations, and acknowledge the significance of this historical day is the right thing to do.”

The arts event Friday at Congress Square Park will include block-printing of Juneteenth-related items and discussions about the holiday’s meaning, Lynch said. The event is free, but donations will be accepted to support local artists.

Participants include the Indigo Arts Alliance, Black Artist’s Forum, Maine Youth Justice and Little Chair Printing. It will feature a performance and interactive poetry with Signature Soul, and fashion and textiles by Loquat Shop.

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