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At BLM Event, Some Hope Focus On Black History Doesn’t Stop With Juneteenth

People marching with signs
Tiffani Jackson
Attendees at the Black Lives Matter BloNo Juneteenth event marched from Wayman AME Church to the McLean County jail on Friday, June 19, 2020.

After weeks of protesting for justice for black lives lost at the hands of police, commemorating the day that ended slavery meant a little more this year than others for some.

Marching from Wayman AME Church to the McLean County jail as part of its holiday bailout efforts, the Black Lives Matter BloNo group celebrated Juneteenth on Friday. The group earlier Friday released a sweeping set of policy demands, including defunding the police and teaching more black history in Bloomington-Normal schools.

Embracing and educating hundreds of people about the holiday, some said this year’s atmosphere was different.

“All of a sudden people are on social media learning about our history, learning about new laws being passed to keep us at bay, and throughout that they're figuring out what Juneteenth really means,” BLM group member Candice Byrd said. “I was having a conversation with my mom and realized that for the older generation, this is something they're aware of as far as the history goes. But as far as it being a celebration recognized, it’s new.”

Some African Americans don’t celebrate the Fourth of July holiday. As slavery was still legal, many are reminded that every person in America didn’t receive true independence all at once.

“They were free from England but that was for them,” Byrd said. “We still had no rights, we were still being lynched, and still treated like animals.”

On June 19, 1865, a union general arrived in Texas and told slaves they were free. This was two years after Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves. The news was delayed in reaching Texas. 

“That’s why it’s important to note when we say ‘Free-ish,’ we say it because people still had a slave mentality back then,” Byrd said. “They didn’t know what to do without having a master, no home, and no items in their name. Being free means nothing to you at that point.”

For African American residents in Bloomington-Normal, the march and celebration made a difference. Illinois State University graduate Latoya Carter said this was the first time she saw a public celebration like it in town.

“We have Illinois State University, Heartland, and Wesleyan all telling minorities to come to their school because it’s diverse, but I've been out here for four and a half years and this is the first thing I ever really saw done for black people,” said Carter. “It's really important that we keep doing stuff like this so when black people do come to these schools, they feel welcome in this town.”

To be sure, there have been Juneteenth events in years past. The Bloomington-Normal Black History Project and McLean County Museum of History hosted one again last year. Their 2020 event on Saturday was moved online because of the pandemic.

Carter said having these kinds of events would be a step toward more inclusivity for students.

“There are many black kids that have left ISU but never really felt like a Redbird. We were just students that went there but we did not feel like we were actually a part of the school,” she said. “These events need to continue happening so when we come to these new towns we will feel like we’re a part of the community.”

Byrd said having the celebration in town helped many people acknowledge the African American community and she hopes it influences schools to incorporate more truth into their history classes.

“See us, hear us, recognize our history,” she said. “We get one month when our history is American history and it should be all the time. Our history should be embedded with George Washington’s, and tell us what he really did. Don't tell my kids about Christopher Columbus coming over here and how it was wonderful and they were pals with the Indians. I don't want my babies to hear that growing up. Tell them the truth and include what W.E.B. Du Bois did, and Frederick Douglass, and Madam C.J. Walker. Put all those things in the timeline because it all happened together, not just in February.”

In the future, Byrd hopes people are consistent with celebrating Juneteenth. Seeing a crowd of diverse faces at Friday’s event brought hope. 

“We have black, brown, and white people here, and online some white people were asked if they were allowed, and we said of course!” Byrd said. “When you hear Black Lives Matter we’re not excluding you, it just means it's about us right now. The people behind me mingling together shows what we mean: Black lives do matter, but you're also included. I hope this opens the eyes of a lot of the residents that are naysayers are still not quite understanding to just look at what Juneteenth is today, and see that it embodies unity.”

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