Juneteenth has officially become a federal holiday in the United States as of Tuesday, and Saturday, the Ames community came together to celebrate this monumental historical event. From celebrating Black voices with event speakers to supporting local Black businesses with vendor stands, this year’s Juneteenth celebration, hosted by Ames Black Lives Matter (BLM), was one to remember.
For many, this Juneteenth block party was the very first time they participated in a gathering to commemorate this holiday, and it is largely due to a lack of knowledge about the day itself or a lack of opportunities to celebrate because of regional orientation. But for Martin Stennis Jr., head researcher of Ames BLM and originally from Milwaukee, has been celebrating Juneteenth ever since he was young.
“Juneteenth has been a part of my life since I can remember,” Stennis said.
He went on to explain the real significance of Juneteenth by acknowledging this represents a day where everyone in the U.S., not just white individuals, were free and considered actual human beings.
“I think about the decades before Juneteenth. While that is a wonderful day to recognize and everything, we have to recognize why Juneteenth even exists. It’s not 'just because' or anything like that — there were all kinds of strides and endurance and the will to literally become free,” Stennis said.
Something Stennis cares immensely about is making sure Juneteenth will continue to be remembered and celebrated, and he wants to provide the same education about the historical day to his own family one day.
“I just want to make sure my younger siblings fully understand the depth of such a day like my cousin did for me,” Stennis said. "I really want my sisters to know why this day is so important and why it should mean something to you, and maybe tell them about something like women-related because they [are Black women and] were, of course, a part of helping liberate Black people at that time.”
Many attendees were glad Juneteenth is officially being recognized as a national holiday, but this also does not excuse the fact that much more work still needs to be done. First time celebrator Elijah Williams completely agreed with the decision to make the day officially a holiday but also realizes this is not the first time for everyone to acknowledge the day.
“It has been recognized in Texas for a really long time but nationally, not ever until recently, so I’m really happy that we’re taking the steps toward making history accurate again and telling the actual, real story behind our country,” Williams said.
Williams explained they want to see the future of Juneteenth flourish and become just as important of a day as all of the other nationally recognized holidays in the U.S.
“My goal and hopes for Juneteenth are for it to be better than the Fourth of July, a more accurate representation of what we are as a country, acknowledging who made the U.S. actually and coming together as a nation and saying, ‘We know that history, but let’s build a brighter future,’” they said.
Iowa State Sen. Herman Quirmbach came out to celebrate for the first time as well, and being a history enthusiast, he was excited to see Juneteenth get the credit it deserved in being recognized as an official federal holiday. When thinking back about his high school experience, Quirmbach did not remember having any proper education about the historical day and decided it was important to make up for lost time.
“It is an important day historically,” Quirmbach said. “I don’t remember when I was in high school ever hearing about Juneteenth, and I went to a pretty good high school. You know, there are a lot of aspects of African American history, which is part of U.S. history, that need more attention, so that is kind of why I wanted to come out.”
When describing the historical element of Juneteenth, Quirmbach emphasized the fact that although Juneteenth is meant to celebrate the practical end of slavery, that day did not necessarily rid Black Americans of racial oppression.
“It was the practical end of slavery. I think some people would tell you that it was followed by a century of oppression, you know, Jim Crow was sort of slavery 2.0, but you know, you take your progress where you can get it, and that was an important part of the progress,” Quirmbach said.
Head of Ames BLM Jo Allen wanted to stress the importance of Ames BLM’s cumulative effort to put this event together and pull off something Ames has never had before. Allen said there was no better time to hold an event than Juneteenth. But while the event is a step in the right direction, there are facts that need to be noticed with policies, such as Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds' recent signing of a bill that prohibits educators from teaching about critical race theory and divisive topics, which Allen considered to be contradictory.
“It’s the performance, you know, it’s you care about this or make it a national holiday, but take away diversity training, critical race theory, those are things that are necessary, especially with the lack of exposure that we have and the fact that I don’t know about Juneteenth and I am just now learning about it really as a 22, 23-year-old,” Allen said. “It shouldn’t take me that long in my life to learn about when freedom really was a thing.”
For so many Ames community members, this was their first time coming out to celebrate a holiday that is so critical to the United States’ history, and it was an event that allowed visitors to take a moment and remember when the country really became a free nation. In the future, Ames BLM hopes to continue to celebrate the legacy of this holiday and to recognize all of this nation’s history with more events and opportunities for the community to come together and get involved while educating more fellow Americans.