The South Portland Human Rights Commission is gearing up for a Saturday for its first celebration of Juneteenth, the holiday marking the end of slavery in the United States.

The City Council voted unanimously on June 10 to recognize June 19 as Juneteenth Independence Day in the city  and on June 15 voted to display the Juneteenth flag outside city hall from June 18-21.

Portland-based musician Kafari will be perform at the Juneteenth event, along with Kenya Hall. File photo / Sun Journal

The free celebration, which also will honor World Rufugee Day, which is June 20, will include ice cream, family activities and music from funk and soul performers Kenya Hall and Kafari, will be held from 3-5 p.m. June 19 at the gazebo in Mill Creek Park. The Human Rights Commission organized the festivities in partnership with the city, said commission Chairperson Pedro Vazquez.

“It truly is a community event,” he said.

On June 19, 1865, officials in Texas formally recognized President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, becoming the final state in the union to officially abolish slavery. The date has since been regarded as a pivotal moment in African-American history, but Vazquez said it has gone largely unmentioned in schools nationwide.

“Our educational institutions have not told the whole story,” he said.

Recent events, including the death last year of George Floyd while in the custody of white police officers in Minneapolis and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement that followed, spurred the South Portland council to more formally recognize June 19 as a holiday.

Nationally, Congress voted this week to declare June 19 a national holiday, officially designating it “Juneteenth National Independence Day.” The U.S. Senate voted for the new holiday on Tuesday, followed by the House vote on Wednesday.

“That’s huge,” Vazquez said prior to the House vote. “It is very encouraging to see the Senate take that action.”

City Councilor Deqa Dhalac, who plans to attend Saturday’s event and participate in a reading of the council’s proclamation regarding Juneteenth, also speaking before the House vote, called the Senate vote “encouraging and powerful.”

Dhalac agreed with Vazquez that the holiday deserves more attention and recognition, but credited events nationwide in 2020 with driving awareness of the date’s significance.

“There is a first time for everything, and I think that George Floyd’s death brought people to really realize what’s happening in this country,” she said.

Dhalac said she believes Saturday’s Juneteenth celebration represents an opportunity for education, and hopes this will be the first of many such events.

“I’m sure there’s going to be more events like this coming along,” she said.

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