Benicia Mayor Steve Young graduated from Burbank High School, earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from UC Berkeley and a master of arts degree in urban policy and administration from San Francisco State.
Not one class discussed Juneteenth. No mention. Nothing.
“It’s something we never learned … Juneteenth and the Tulsa Massacre, the things an educated person like myself should have learned a long time ago,” Young said, minutes before presenting a “Juneteenth Freedom Day” proclamation Saturday at the City of Benicia Inaugural Juneteenth Celebration at the Camel Barn Museum.
Featuring a dozen Black-owned businesses, speeches, poetry reading and the singing of the Negro National Anthem, the significance of the first Juneteenth in Benicia — complemented by Juneteenth as a new federal holiday — “indicates that we’ve made progress and, though we have a long way to go, what it means for the history of this country is very significant,” Young said.
The Benicia Juneteenth Celebration “is huge,” said Brandon Greene of the event-sponsoring Benicia Black Lives Matter, especially coming on the heels of raising the Freedom Flag in Benicia “which had never been done.”
Greene, 38, a seven-year Benician, grew up in Las Vegas after his family left the Deep South in the Great Migration west.
“I was fortunate that my grandparents knew their history and taught our history to me,” Greene said, happy that “the federal government has finally recognized Juneteenth” as President Joe Biden signed off on it Thursday.
“President Obama always did proclamations, but never had the ability to pass it through Congress to make it a federal holiday,” Greene said, calling it “a reckoning on how we teach history in this country.”
Greene added that the fruits of Black Lives Matter’s labor in creating the Camel Barn event was worth it as the venue filled even before the official 11 a.m. start.
“This is amazing … the energy … and being able to see all the Black vendors,” Greene said.
Another Benicia Black Lives Matter activist, 19-year Benicia resident Nimat Shakoor-Grantham, acknowledged that a Juneteenth Celebration is a big step in educating the town’s residences.
“Even in my beginning of trying to organize Benicia Black Lives Matter, I was told by so many white people, ‘Why are you trying to cause dissension in our town. We don’t need this,’” Shakoor-Grantham said. “I’ve had my son called racist names. I’ve been called racist names and stopped by police asking me, ‘Where do you live?’”
Black people in the predominantly White city “need to be respected,” continued Shakoor-Grantham, emphasizing that the new holiday “is a reminder that America had slaves and slaves actually built this country under toil, bondage and free labor. Juneteenth shows how resilient we are and that there’s no reason to treat us like second-class citizens. Making it a federal holiday is long overdue.”
Shakoor-Grantham said she was “surprised” at the big turn-out at the Camel Barn.
“I’m happy. My heart is full. There are so many people that want to know the true history, so many that feel it’s time for Black people to be treated equally,” she said.
Incorporating Black history into the Benicia school curricula is in the works, Shakoor-Grantham said, which would help “make it better for Black people to live here.”
Daniel Halyard, 73, ran the NAACP information table with his wife, Betty, and said Juneteeth “is freedom day for us” and, though grateful it’s now a federal holiday, “a lot more needs to be done. Reparations, better jobs, better opportunities.”
A 12-year-Benician, Gethsemane Moss, said the Juneteenth Celebration “is really important to our residents in not only understanding the history. I hope it’s an annual event we do and continues to grow. ”
She hopes the locals get educated and no longer “go with the false narratives, with a lack of understanding generation after generation. It’s an epic fail.”
Dr. Maliika Chambers, Benicia’s Equity Diversity Inclusion Manager, said the city’s first Juneteenth Celebration “is huge. It’s amazing,” emphasizing the event was “pro-active” and not “re-active.”
The new holiday, Juneteenth National Independence Day, “is like people knowing it’s your birthday and finally celebrating it,” Chambers said. “It raises the conversation around the contribution of African Americans. It’s one more step in the conversation.”