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.
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.”