US celebrates Juneteenth for first time as a national holiday

Black residents in Washington ask why it took so long for Emancipation Day to be recognised

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This weekend marked the first time the US celebrated Juneteenth as a national holiday, but in the nation's capital, residents are already well-versed in celebrating the day of black American liberation.

June 19, 1865, was when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learnt of their freedom, the last Americans to hear about the Emancipation Proclamation that Abraham Lincoln had announced more than two years earlier during the Civil War.

US President Joe Biden signed a bill last week making June 19 a federal holiday, culminating a decades-long struggle for the date to gain full federal recognition.

Washington, whose population is 46 per cent black, has a rich cultural legacy, black-owned business districts and was once nicknamed "Chocolate City".

On Saturday, the city flourished with celebrations, from block parties to community fitness events.

In Black Lives Matter Plaza, near the White House, a huge gathering of Juneteenth celebrators danced to the distinctly Washingtonian "go-go" music genre that blends funk and R&B with a unique beat style incorporating conga drums and cowbells.

Kevin Cramer, co-founder of activist group the Palm Collective, said displays of black joy were an important part of Juneteenth and activism for what he calls black liberation in general.

“Celebration is part of the black experience. Even when given nothing, black people turn straw into gold every single day, we rise from the ashes," Mr Cramer said.

"Even though we’re out celebrating today, we all know that tomorrow we have to get up and fight.”

Before the march, he said he was looking forward to an event that illustrated the black experience.

"I am looking for community, for love, for joy. It is also Pride Month, Black Music Month, Father's Day and black fathers matter, there is just so much for us to take pride in and have joy in and celebrate today," he told The National.

Allegra Tomassa Massaro is founder of Fuel the People, which partners with chefs of colour to help feed locals and community activists in Washington and New York City.

She helped to organise the Giving Flowers Project, a music and food-filled celebration that put the spotlight on black female artists and organisers and gave all women who attended a bouquet.

"Black joy is a form of resistance. It's difficult for non-black people to think of us outside of our pain, death and our trauma," she said.

"It’s really important as a movement to centre black joy, black life, black prosperity and so many different things."

But Mr Biden's signing of a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday has drawn mixed reactions among the organisers of Washington's Juneteenth celebrations.

Ms Tomassa Massaro said the declaration was an important symbol, but long overdue.

“It absolutely makes a difference," she said.

"Last year we were advocating for it to be recognised and it's wonderful that it was. But it should’ve happened 100 years ago.

“The country turned in the assignment late.

“So we won’t give you extra credit, we’ll give you a passing grade ... it’s not nearly enough but it is a great step.”

But for Mr Cramer, declaring the federal holiday is performative and disrespectful.

“How dare you try to celebrate people of colour when the other 364 days out of the year they don’t matter to you,” he said.

“It’s very funny that we’re going to talk about Emancipation Day but there are 15 states that don’t want to teach [the legacy of slavery] in schools, so what are we talking about?”

Ms Tomassa Massaro also wanted to make it clear that the increased awareness of the Juneteenth holiday is not only new to white Americans, because its history is not taught in schools.

“This holiday is not only new to white people in this country, it’s also a holiday being celebrated for the first time by a lot of black people as well," she said.

"I know for me I didn't celebrate Juneteenth growing up, because it's not something we learnt about in school.

“So ask yourself why it took us so long to celebrate this holiday nationally."