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Vienna’s Juneteenth celebration juggles progress and pain of the past and present

Stanley Stewart wasn’t the only one wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt among the crowd of people at the Juneteenth event outside the First Baptist Church of Vienna on Saturday (June 19).

But this gathering was more celebration than protest, serving as a kick-off for the Town of Vienna’s inaugural Liberty Amendments Month.

Officially recognized by Congress as a federal holiday for the first time this year,  Juneteenth — a portmanteau of June 19 — serves as a symbolic commemoration of the U.S.’s abolition of slavery. It comes on the anniversary of the day in 1865 when a major general for the Union informed Texas that all enslaved people were now free.

“This wasn’t in no history book I read,” Stewart said.

The Juneteenth recognition represents the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983 to celebrate the civil rights leader’s birthday, following his assassination in 1968.

The Lone Star State became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday, starting in 1980, and other states followed. More informal commemorations, though, began as early as 1866.

Wrapping around the church parking lot, Vienna’s Juneteenth Celebration featured informational booths, vendors, music, and more in addition to providing a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in the church.

Signs at the event looked at past historical figures and events, with one noting that slave labor helped build the White House and U.S. Capitol. Others highlighted U.S. senators who stood up for abolition.

An outdoor stage set up by the church hosted a variety of musical performances, including a gospel singer who sprinkled in references to Juneteenth and invited listeners to clap their hands if they’re free.

“It’s a start,” said Wes Cherry, a field underwriter with Foresters Financial operating with the group Focus on Community. The company is a fraternal benefit society that gives money back to communities.

For Cherry, the federal holiday recognition is much appreciated, but he also noted the move came at the same time that many state legislatures, including in Texas, are working to limit teachers’ ability to discuss racism in their classrooms.

The additional federal holiday also comes a year after last summer’s widespread protests for racial justice in the wake of several killings, including George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville at the hands of police as well as jogger Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot and killed by three white men in Georgia.

“America, while we love it, [has] to acknowledge our past and history,” said Vernon Walton, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Vienna.

Last year, the church held a rally for Juneteenth following the “lynching of George Floyd,” Walton said.  This year, he said he’s overjoyed that people can celebrate the federal government recognizing the holiday.

Despite the somber and painful legacy of the past that continues to shape the present, Walton and other attendees this year noted how the event drew diverse members of the community.

“People are here from all walks of life,” he said. “We really are blessed.”

The event’s kickoff ceremony remains to watch on social media. It launched the Town of Vienna’s weeklong celebration of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, which will be followed by events commemorating the 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments.

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