Growing up on the west side of Detroit had a profound effect on how I dealt with being a young African American in the United States.
Detroit is the most populated primarily black major city in the country, and with the exception of midtown and downtown, the disproportion is apparent in any neighborhood in the municipality. Furthermore, Detroit is proud of its rich black history, including the elegance of Motown, sports legends such as Joe Louis, and pioneering politicians such as Coleman Young.
We even sport one of the few African American history museums in the United States.
How, then, educated and surrounded by such beautiful history, did I never learn to celebrate Juneteenth, the very day that allowed for freedom in this country?
Juneteenth, sometimes referred to as Freedom Day, marks the commemoration of the announcement to Texas that slavery had been abolished throughout the Confederate states. Essentially, it lives on as a celebration of the ending of slavery. However, despite its importance, and perhaps speaking to the nature of our country, Juneteenth is not officially recognized as a national holiday (although it is recognized as a state or ceremonial holiday in 45 states and the District of Columbia).
In all my years of adolescence, I never knew anyone who celebrated Juneteenth. Even as a student at Washington University, I know of only a few fellow students who are celebrating the event in any capacity. It isn’t that my black peers and I lack joy for the commemoration of our freedom attainment, but rather, we were barely educated about the holiday at all.
To my great pride, I was recently provided with an opportunity to connect with the Juneteenth holiday in a way I never imagined that I would.
In May I was selected by Washington University’s Gephardt Institute as an Arts as Civic Engagement fellow. As part of this program, I was partnered with The Griot Museum of Black History to work in-house on programs and events. The first event I was tasked with coordinating was its “40 Acres and a Mule” Juneteenth celebration.
A now-annual event that had its inaugural offering last year, The Griot’s Juneteenth event is a celebration involving art, music, food and live historical interpretations.
The event doubles as a fundraiser for the museum, as a portion of the event is dedicated to an art sale and auction containing donated works from St. Louis artists who create Juneteenth-themed pieces to be sold at the event. When an attendee purchases an artwork, they have a piece of Juneteenth to carry with them through the rest of the year.
Last year, “40 Acres and a Mule” displayed more than 100 artworks for sale and was attended by more than 150 people.
The Griot, at 2505 Saint Louis Avenue in St. Louis’ Old North neighborhood, is the perfect place to hold a celebration of such a beautiful moment in black history. Formerly known as the Black World History Wax Museum, the museum was renamed in 2009. In some African countries, a “griot” is a respected community member who collects and shares stories and objects of the group.
The museum was founded by Lois Conley, and she still works as the executive director, ensuring The Griot continues to be a center of community and St. Louis history. Today, The Griot exists as a shining example of how African Americans can take control of our own narratives. By holding events such as this Juneteenth celebration, The Griot provides a space both to learn about the history of the holiday and to celebrate its glory.
On an individual level, the opportunity to coordinate this event has allowed me to connect with my new community in a way that I otherwise would not have. I am afforded an opportunity to meet fellow artists, native St. Louisans and other young people who are looking for a means to celebrate the emancipation.
Juneteenth is a celebration that all Americans should participate in. America prides itself on providing freedom, and thus, the attainment of those freedoms is cause for just commemoration. Although I wish I had been given the opportunity in my youth to observe the holiday, I am filled with jubilation that my first celebration will be within The Griot’s unique community space.
This year will be my first time spending the holiday in celebration, but it certainly won’t be the last.
Rob Hall is a resident with The Griot Museum of Black History and studies at Washington University in St. Louis.