June 23, 2021 — On Saturday, June 19, members of the Florence community celebrated the enactment of the first official “Juneteenth” federal holiday with a rally and speeches commemorating the day.
The “Juneteenth National Independence Day Act” belatedly recognizes the emancipation of enslaved persons in Texas, in 1865, the last confederate state to do so.
U.S. President Joe Biden signed the legislation authorizing the enactment into law on June 17 and the bill took effect immediately.
This quick turnaround from vote to celebration was made possible by the unanimous passage of Senate Bill S. 475 on Wednesday by the Senate. The House of Representatives had previously voted 415-14 to forward their version of the bill to the Senate.
The newly minted holiday drew approximately 100 people to the rally site at the Florence United Methodist Church, located at 333 Kingwood Street.
The Rev. Karen Basinger, pastor of the church, opened the rally with a prayer and an expression of appreciation for the recognition of the need for the holiday, before turning over the microphone to other speakers. These included local advocate Lenora Kent, Florence City Councilor Sally Wantz and newly elected Siuslaw School Board Director Maureen Miltenberger.
“I want to start by saying our youth are our most valuable and precious resource, making it a great honor that I was elected on our local school board as a director,” Miltenberger said.
She quoted Oregon Department of Education statistics which showed, as of 2019, that 22 percent of local students were non-white.
“I just want to share with you two segments from the district’s mission statement that I think are appropriate for today’s celebration: ‘We believe in providing a safe, positive and a mutually respectful educational environment for all of our students’ and ‘we believe that the involvement of the entire community is essential to our children’s success.’ And there are many ways we as a community can get involved, including donating to the Siuslaw Education Foundation, and by attending or watching school board meetings and other educational events.”
Also speaking at the rally, Lane Community College (LCC) Florence Center Dean Russ Pierson spoke to the crowd about the need for the holiday, both from a historical perspective and from a personal one, and to continue to fight for a reversal in the racism that seems to many be an inherent element of American society.
“Juneteenth is about the power of words, the power of actions, and the inherent superpowers we can all find at the crossroads of diversity, inclusion and equity,” Pierson said.
He quoted economist Heather McGhee and “the zero-sum paradigm” she wrote about in her recent book, “The Sum of Us.”
“‘The zero-sum paradigm’ is a concept that presumes that if one group gains something, then another must be losing something. In my mind, many of us wrongly believe that when people of color achieve rights or benefits, white Americans must be losing ground. But the truth is that all citizens can and do profit from a more just society, with greater access to public goods and infrastructure that benefits everyone,” Pierson said.
The Florence Center dean also introduced recently elected LCC Board member Holli Johnson, who was appointed in March and then won her seat in the May Special Election. Johnson is the first African American to serve on the LCC Board of Education.
Johnson spoke at length, and with visible emotion, of the hardships her ancestors had experienced as enslaved persons and used a strikingly powerful symbol of servitude — literal chains — as a means to engage the audience.
Johnson requested audience members to join her at the speaker’s podium to help her break the chains of oppression, which were recreated by an actual silver linked chain binding her hands and arms. This request was acted upon when a number of attendees came forward from the crowd, helping Johnson remove the chains that symbolized the struggle of those chained by the evils of slavery.
After the ceremony, Johnson said, “My family and I felt very welcomed by the Florence community as we all celebrated Juneteenth. I hope my words were impactful and that my display of events from a traumatic past (of my ancestors) were representative of how we have suffered and how we have overcome. It is long past due for our nation to ‘Wake up and break every chain’ and to move forward and onward to a better future for all people, regardless of the color of their skin.”
The speakers gave way to conversations initiated by small groups and individuals sharing their feelings about the state of America regarding race. The most noticeable comments expressed were the shared hope that the first federally recognized “Juneteenth Celebration” was another step in the long journey to equality for all.
The Florence rally was just one of the thousands of similar events held in Oregon, and across the nation.