East St. Louis long celebrated Juneteenth, now seeks equity

Posted6/27/2021 7:00 AM

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. -- During a flag-raising ceremony at East St. Louis City Hall on June 19, Stephanie Taylor couldn't help but cry.

She was surrounded by about 40 people who were cheering on her and husband, Terrance, as the tears rolled down her face. The Juneteenth flag was just raised at city hall. It was a powerful, yet familiar moment. The Taylors, through their East St. Louis nonprofit Community Development Sustainable Solutions, have been staunch advocates for bringing more awareness to Juneteenth. Saturday's event was their tenth year hosting a celebration in the city to recognize the holiday.


But it was the couple's first time celebrating Juneteenth as an official state and federal holiday.

'I cannot believe that on this Juneteenth, we're celebrating as a national holiday, Stephanie said. '... We have a platform now that we can talk about what true equity is.'

Equity was a theme of Juneteenth Metro-East 'Freedom in Equity' Festival, which was organized by the Taylors. The event took place at various locations in East St. Louis. It started with a motorcade heading to East St. Louis City Hall on Saturday morning and ended with an afternoon of food, music and fun at Jones Park.

Stephanie and Terrance are founding members of the Illinois Juneteenth Commitee. Every year, the couple has supported legislation to make Juneteenth a state and national holiday.

'Reparations now,' Terrance said about what he wants to see happen next now that Juneteenth is officially a national holiday. 'Reparations now. We got Juneteenth, and now that's the strategy. '

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Stephanie also wants that. She wants the spirit of Juneteenth to go beyond the holiday.

'It means next steps,' Stephanie said. 'It means time to move even further. This was just one step. This was about acknowledging history, and now it is time to make sure equity is realized ... that looks like reparations. That looks like the Crown Act. That looks like really experiencing equity.'

Juneteenth is named after June 19, 1865, when Union forces arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced the end of slavery for those who were still enslaved in the state. The announcement came two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, which outlawed slavery only in Confederate states. Slavery was officially abolished, including in places not included in the Emancipation Proclamation, with the ratification of the 13th amendment in December of 1865.

The holiday has been widely recognized by the Black community, which started with celebrations held by Black people in Texas, as a day of freedom since the late 1800's.

Since the murder of George Floyd in 2020, acknowledgment of the holiday has gained more traction on the local and federal level. St. Clair County board members voted last year to observe Juneteenth as a paid holiday for county employees. On Wednesday, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker made Juneteenth a state holiday this week. The next day, President Biden signed legislation that makes Juneteenth a federal holiday.


Wendell Thomas, a Washington Park native, said he remembers learning about Juneteenth while attending school in East St. Louis, although he thinks it should be taught more in schools. Still, he said he's excited about the progress being made to make more people aware about the holiday. Thomas attended Saturday's event.

'I'm going to be honest, I don't even celebrate the Fourth of July anymore,' Thomas, 38, said. I haven't celebrated it in the past few years, so I don't intend on celebrating it anymore. It's not trying to be one kind of way, it's just that I'm excited about my heritage and my people, and at any given moment, I want to celebrate it if not every day.'

Thomas doesn't want the holiday to be exploited, though. Thomas is the founder of Black Farmer Co., a clothing brand that aims to empower Black people. One of his products features accessories with 'Protect Black Women' written across them. He understands the importance of uplifting one's own community.

'I definitely think they shouldn't come in and own any part of the holiday,' Thomas said about non-Black communities wanting to take part in Juneteenth. 'I feel like that because a lot of people refer to us as Black gold because everybody draws so much from us, so I think there are certain things that need to be off limits, and that's definitely one of them. I don't mind them celebrating it with us, but don't try to make money off of it and profit off of it. '

Charisma McGee, who lives in Belleville, was one of the Black-owned business vendors at the festival in Jones Park. She's the owner of Gloss Boss, a lip-care company for which McGee makes lip glosses, lip scrubs and lip balms . She said she's happy about the mainstream attention for the holiday she's celebrated since she was a child.

'I actually have been celebrating Juneteenth since I was about 8 years old, so every year I would visit my father in Minnesota and they would have lots of Juneteenth festivals every year,' McGee, 37, said. 'Obviously, when I was younger, I didn't truly understand what it meant until I became an adult. This is something that means a lot to me. I feel like it needs to be mainstream, it needs to be out there, so that everyone can know about it, just like the Fourth of July.'

Rep. LaToya Greenwood (D-East St. Louis) said she's also happy about Juneteenth becoming a state and national holiday. She knows there's more work to be done, though.

'While the end of slavery is an important milestone in our crucial history, we know it has been followed by over 150 years of continued oppression and inequity,' Greenwood said.

For Greenwood, the national observance of Juneteenth can lead to more tangible effects for the Black community. It's why she's grateful for the Taylors' efforts. Greenwood said she was informed about the holiday while she served as an alderperson for East St. Louis.

'(I'm) just extremely proud to do something that really impacted us locally because of Terrance and Stephanie,' Greenwood said. 'I remember being in city council, (and thinking) 'Juneteenth. I've never heard of that.' Every year they would come back talking about Juneteenth. Some years it got bigger, some years not many people came, but they were persistent and continuing to have those celebrations. I was just happy to be able to help them to make it a reality.'


Source: Belleville News-Democrat, https://bit.ly/2TSTLn6

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