BILLINGS — People gathered at South Park in Billings Saturday afternoon to celebrate Juneteenth, the holiday remembering June 19, 1865, the day a group of slaves in Texas heard word of their freedom by way of the Emancipation Proclamation.
“It started off in Texas back then and now it is worldwide. Then finally we made it here in Montana and Montana is one of 46 states who recognize Juneteenth day,” said Robert Brown, membership chairman for the Black History Foundation of Yellowstone County.
Juneteenth was officially recognized by Montana's state government as a holiday in 2017. The holiday remembers history of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect January 1, 1863, freeing slaves in the Confederate states. It would take two years for slaves in Galveston, Texas to hear news of their freedom on June 19, 1865.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. constitution was ratified on January 31, 1865, outlawing slavery in the United States.
Brown is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, he said he celebrates two Independence Days, one on the fourth of July and one on Juneteenth.
“July 4th is the Independence Day for America, but if you know the history, we were still slaves when people were celebrating that," Brown said.
“I call it my Independence Day. Though I’m retired military, I celebrate two Independence Days. I celebrate the country’s Independence Day and I celebrate our independence day," Brown said.
The Black History Foundation helped organize the event that had about 100 in attendance. Pinkey Scott was there along with her friends and family. Scott is a black woman who's lived in Billings since 1953 and moved to the city from Alabama when she was 18-years-old.
She said it was wonderful to see people from all races at the celebration.
“It’s not just for black people, it’s for all people. That’s the way I feel. Because god made us all as sisters and brothers together. I don’t care what color we are," Scott said.
Scott usually plays a big role in cooking all the food that's normally served in the accompanying potluck. This year, people missed out on all the barbecue ribs, chicken, beans, corn bread and peach cobbler due to COVID-19. The potluck was switched to a grab-and-go style to prevent the virus's spread.
A selection of speakers addressed the crowd with messages about race and black history. Speakers included Assistant Pastor at All Nations Christian Fellowship Church Tracy Scott, Pastor Melvin Terry of All Nations, State Sen. Margie MacDonald, Robert Brown and Billings Deputy Mayor and City Council Member Mike Yakawich.
Tracy Scott called up three of his six kids to stand with him at the podium make a point about race.
"If I were to poke my son in his finger, his finger and her finger the blood would be one color: red. Pain is what it is, it's pain. If you loose somebody, guess what, it hurts. It hurts me that you lost someone. So why is it that when I loose someone, it doesn't hurt you? Why is it that we have to live in a world where there's so much turmoil, so much discord? Because we don't believe the same things, we don't like the same things? So what? That is your God given right," Starr said.
The Juneteenth celebration this year marks 155 years after the Galveston slaves learned of their freedom. Brown saw Saturday's celebration as an opportunity to remember black history in America.
“If you don’t learn about your history, you are bound to repeat it and forget about it," Brown said.
One history Brown said more people should know is history the Tulsa race massacre that took place in 1921. The violence was sparked after19-year-old Dick Rowland was accused of assaulting a white woman in an elevator.
Word of Rowland's apparently planned lynching brought two crowds of black and white people to the jail when violence broke out, injuring thousands, with people at the time confirming 36 dead. Historians now believe as many as 300 people died in the massacre, according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum.
“Those kinds of things, (are) embarrassing to our country. But if you can honor Confederate generals that actually fought against our country, why not bring about what they were doing? What about our history? It’s just as important," Brown said.
The Juneteenth celebration comes about a month after the death of George Floyd sparked conversations about race and police reform across the country. Meshayla Cox said Floyd's death gave the holiday a new energy of activism.
“I feel like George Floyd lost his breath and this work and anti-racism efforts really caught theirs in this moment," Cox said.
Cox is the outreach coordinator for Montana Racial Equity, a Bozeman-based group who helped organize Black Lives Matter protests in Bozeman and Missoula. She was in Billings to make connections for a larger celebration in the works for next year at a venue in Bozeman.
"From the protests that have happened around the state, to see thousands of people showing up for that and to now recognize Juneteenth as a day of freedom and what that really represents for black folks is really, really important," Cox said.