Benicia Black Lives Matter Hosts First Annual Juneteenth Freedom Celebration, June 19
By Vicki Byrum Dennis, with contributions from BBLM members
June 20, 2021 – More than 350 people joined together on Saturday at Benicia’s historic Camel Barns to celebrate the First Annual Juneteenth Freedom Day festival to be held in the city. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day enslaved individuals in Galveston, Texas were informed that slavery had been abolished and that they were freed persons.
Saturday’s celebration, sponsored by Benicia Black Lives Matter (BBLM), was filled with proclamations and resolutions from city officials, history presentations, a step performance, poetry and music as well as food and interesting wares from more than a dozen Black-owned businesses.“We are delighted that so many people joined BBLM to celebrate this day, which to Blacks is our Fourth of July,” said Nimat Shakoor-Grantham, co-founder of BBLM and a behavioral therapist. The festival was planned long before anyone knew that President Joe Biden would sign into law the observation of Juneteenth as a national holiday just a few days earlier. “Because of the significance of what had just occurred in Washington, our celebration is doubly meaningful,” Shakoor-Grantham said.
Juneteenth activities in Benicia actually began on Friday, when the Juneteenth flag was raised over City Hall with City Council and BBLM members in attendance. On Saturday, Shakoor-Grantham and BBLM co-founder Brandon Greene started the program by sharing their stories of why they founded BBLM last summer. Galvanized by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other Black people, and united by their personal experiences of racism, slurs, discrimination and inequities in Benicia, they formed the grassroots community organization to address anti-Black racism in Benicia. During the program, both co-founders spoke of the need for all Benicians to get and stay active in the work to end racism in Benicia and to speak out when they observe it.
“It is important to put today’s event into the correct political and social context,” said Greene, who is also Director of Racial and Economic Justice Program for ACLU of Northern California and an adjunct professor at UC Hasting School of Law. “We need to take this joyous energy of today and move forward to educate, to teach the real history of America, and to hold the city, the county and others accountable to disenfranchised people.”
Afterwards, Benicia Mayor Steve Young read an official proclamation from the city designating Juneteenth an official annual celebration for Benicia. Dr. Maliika Chambers, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Manager for the City of Benicia, presented Resolution 20-103, which established the position she holds and created several important but as yet unrealized action items for the City to address serious inequities in civic representation and support for Black-owned businesses.
The crowd then stood together and sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Negro National Anthem, played by the local jazz band Bow Hammer Skins.
After an energetic and commanding step performance by the Omega Gents, young mentees from a program for African American middle- and high-school boys sponsored by the Northern California Chapter of Omega Psi Phi, Robert Johnson presented the history of Juneteenth, long an important date for Black Americans, yet little mentioned in American history books.
“It came two years after the Emancipation Act was signed by President Lincoln and two months after the South surrendered, ending the Civil War,” Johnson said. “But Blacks continued to be enslaved despite the proclamation. It was only when Major General Gordon Granger told the citizens of Galveston, Texas, that legalized slavery in the United States had ended that Blacks there realized they were free. June 19 has long marked the occasion of freedom for Blacks in America.”
Johnson concluded by noting that while Juneteenth may represent freedom, the long, ongoing struggle for a more just and equitable living standard for all Americans, regardless of skin color, continues. Even after slavery was legally abolished, Black and African Americans suffered from sanctioned discrimination throughout the South and all of the U.S. through reconstruction and Jim Crow laws, which created and sustained inequities in education, housing, jobs, health care and much more—proving that the struggle is far from over.