Portland celebrates Juneteenth as a federal holiday

·4 min read

Jun. 20—Twenty-six years after he threw his first Juneteenth party in Maine, Joe Kings watched the state, and the entire nation, celebrate with him.

At his Riverton business, Ultimate Car Care, on Saturday, Kings grilled ribs, hot dogs and jerk chicken with friends of many races who've been with him summer after summer. This year's party was a little different: It took place soon after President Biden signed legislation establishing June 19, the anniversary of the last emancipations in 1865, as a federal holiday, and Gov. Janet Mills did the same in Maine.

Kings, and people around Portland who observe Juneteenth, took that development as a dose of hope.

"Juneteenth has always been celebratory," he said, but this year, he hopes, will mark a new beginning — "kind of like the first leg of a journey that's inclusive, where everyone is included and appreciated and recognized."

Kings has been celebrating Juneteenth since 1996, the year after he opened his car detailing business. Having moved to Maine from Texas, he was used to large celebrations of the anniversary of July 19, 1865, when enslaved people were freed in Galveston, Texas, one of the last areas under Confederate control.

The date is especially resonant for Kings, whose great-great-great-grandmother, Lucy Rowland, was born in Virginia and bought on July 21, 1845, for $425. She was 23. She later married and had two children. Kings keeps a photo of her above his desk.

This year, he got up at dawn to smoke 30 racks of his specialty, baby back ribs. Friends brought 40 pounds of fried chicken wings, 40 smoked turkey legs and 50 pounds of Jamaican chicken, its skin spiced and blackened, the succulent meat falling off the bone.

In Maine, Mills last week signed a bill designating June 19 a paid holiday during which state offices are closed. The law takes effect in 2022.

"Juneteenth is an American holiday, an Independence Day," the bill's sponsor, House Assistant Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, said in a statement Saturday. "It is not only a day to celebrate those who fought for freedom and our collective liberation, it is a day to confront our nation's true history."

"When I submitted that legislation, I felt the weight of my ancestors and all those who came before me asking to be valued and seen as human beings," Talbot Ross said. "I knew it to be part of our quest for self-determination and human rights. Forty-eight years ago, my father, the Honorable Gerald E. Talbot, put in a bill to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a state holiday, and reintroduced that legislation three consecutive times, each term he was in office. Maine eventually passed the bill four years before it became a federal holiday in 1983. I am proud that, with Juneteenth, Maine was once again able to lead in recognizing such important history."

Ginette Haynes, who has attended Kings' Juneteenth parties since the beginning, sipped beer and snacked on rambutans, a succulent South Asian fruit brought by friends. Originally from Montreal, Haynes has two biracial children. She said she celebrated Juneteenth all those years to educate them and the wider public about American history.

"When you know better, you do better," Haynes said, "so I spread that to everyone — my relatives, my friends," and even, when she worked for United Airlines, the occasional traveler.

Around the same time in Congress Square Park, an outdoor festival offered passersby the chance to meet local artists of color and make prints on tote bags to take home. Under a tree festooned with ribbons, artist Titi de Baccarat told stories from his native Gabon, engaging closely with an appreciative crowd and accompanying himself with a gourd rattle.

Athena Lynch, who organized the event this year and last with Friends of Congress Square Park, said she hoped to see Juneteenth celebrations grow even larger in Portland, connecting across neighborhoods to include the entire city.

"I would love for Juneteenth to be a citywide event — everyone connected," she said. "That's my dream."

Like others who marked the date on Saturday, Lynch said she wanted it to be an educational moment. Growing up in New Jersey, she wasn't taught about seminal events in America's history such as the 1921 Tulsa race massacre and the anniversary of emancipation.

"There's so much about American history involving BIPOC people," she said, using a shorthand for Black, indigenous and people of color, "that's not taught in schools, that's overlooked."

But it should be, she said: "That's the point of history — to not repeat the same mistakes."

The Congress Square Park party Saturday followed a Friday-night event at the park with Maine Inside Out, who performed the play "Weeping City," written in 2009 after a fatal police shooting in Portland.

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