The Westbrook Juneteenth Freedom Celebration included a choir performance of the National Black Anthem and other songs on Sunday. Cullen McIntyre/Staff Photographer

Until recently, many people had never heard of Juneteenth. Others thought it was a Texas celebration.

That’s all starting to change.

On Sunday, about 200 people came to Westbrook’s Riverbank Park for the city’s now-annual Juneteenth celebration marking the end of slavery in the United States. They played games; listened to speeches, songs and poetry; and ate lots of good food.

The subject of speeches and conversations ranged from the country’s shameful history of slavery to the need to protect civil rights and inclusion.

Juneteenth, which was declared a federal holiday in 2021, marks the day when Gen. Gordon Granger and his troops rode into Galveston, Texas, in 1865 to ensure that all enslaved people were freed, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

The following year, freedmen in Texas organized the first observance of what would become the Juneteenth holiday.


Westbrook Mayor Michael T. Foley read a proclamation outlining the history of the end of slavery, recognizing the contributions of the enslaved and their ancestors, and declaring June 19 to be known as Juneteenth in Westbrook.

The Westbrook Juneteenth Freedom Celebration included a performance from the Westbrook “Bongo Man” on Sunday. Cullen McIntyre/Staff Photographer

One of the speakers was Louis Pickens, chef of Black Betty’s Bistro in Portland. Pickens grew up in Texas and recalled how, as a boy, he and his family celebrated Juneteenth, and how pleased he was to see the day celebrated locally.

He lauded Opal Lee, considered the grandmother of Juneteenth, who at the age of 89 walked from Texas to Washington, D.C., to call for Juneteenth to be recognized nationally. President Biden made it a federal holiday in 2021.

“Let’s give it up for her!” Pickens cheered.

“Keep shining, keep loving, love your way out of the darkness,” he continued. “Look at your brother, your sister from another mother, another color, and tell them it’s going to be all right. We’re here for one another to support, love and grow.”

Bishop Steve Coleman of the Church of God in Christ spoke about how shameful it was that, even after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, many states continued enslaving people until 1865.


“To have those states not do what they should have done two years earlier, it should never have happened,” he said.

It’s worth celebrating the end of enslavement, a better understanding of history, and recognizing those who came before us and spent sweat and tears to make sure people are free, Coleman said.

“Let’s tell our kids what this all means, and what happened, and how we need to go forward from here,” the bishop said. “We still have housing issues. We still have gerrymandering. We still have redlining. We still have people trying to make it hard for some folks to vote. We need to make sure that we keep on doing this.”

Westbrook Middle School students Bella Zollarcoffer, Priscila Nzolameso and Sarikong Oak held tables educating and informing the community on Black hair history Sunday. Cullen McIntyre/Staff Photographer

Coleman encouraged more people to get involved in politics, saying that if the same people remain in charge, little will change.

Whoever is in power in Washington, Augusta or Westbrook, if they don’t have the best interests of people in mind, “let’s vote them out,” Coleman said. That means voting, standing up and protesting when needed, he said.

After the speeches, Suzanne Proulx, the music director for Westbrook schools, led a chorus singing “Oh Freedom,” a song often associated with the civil rights movement. The singers also performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black National Anthem.


Westbrook High School students Afrah Mohamoud, Marie Chantal and Lexiane Kabore served as hosts.

As people got in line for Chef Pickens’ food, Trevor Borne of Westbrook said he’s seen a lot of positive changes in his city, and he’s pleased to see Westbrook recognize Juneteenth.

He wants his city “to just keep holding events like this to spread awareness of the world around people. As a Black person, I only learned about Juneteenth 12 years ago. I never heard about it in school.”

When Borne first learned about Juneteenth, “I thought, ‘That’s what they do in Texas.’ ”

“Then, it grew and grew,” he said. “Now here we are with a federal holiday. To me that’s great.”

But, he added, the national celebration to recognize the end of slavery “should have been done a long time ago.”

Becky Coleman of Gorham said she decided to attend after seeing the celebration posted on Facebook.

Coleman said she came because she wanted to learn about Black culture, from their struggles to “the beautiful braids and hairstyles. I came here to get educated.”

It wasn’t long ago, she said, “I didn’t know what Juneteenth was.”

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