People around Maine paused Friday to mark Juneteenth, the day in 1865 that a Union Army general announced in Galveston, Texas that all slaves in that state were free – a culmination of President Lincoln’s 1863 emancipation proclamation.
June 19 has been a day of celebration and sometimes protest among African Americans ever since. That was the case at a rally and march in Portland Friday.
“We're going to start off with the Negro National Anthem, so whoever's on the ground, can y'all please get up.” Many of the roughly 400 people gathered in front of Portland City Hall sang along to the strains of "Lift Every Voice."
And although the rally came on the heels of a procession of Black lives Matters protests this month in Portland and around the world, organizers of this event said they were not doing so in the name of any particular activist group.
Several of the young speakers said they were products of Maine's education system. Gracia Bareti took aim at the schools' near-total silence on black history in Maine and the country.
“One of our education system's most substantial flaws is its attempt to sugarcoat black history through disregarding how America had systematically failed black people for years.”
Bareti asked whether any in her audience knew about Portland's leading role in the Underground Railroad that helped smuggle enslaved people to freedom, or about the nearly 200-year-old Abyssinian Meetinghouse, the nation’s third oldest church built by African-Americans.
And she proclaimed a message of empowerment.
“Our message to the next generation is that being black is a gift. In a world that constantly participates in your erasure, you must claim these spaces and shout, 'I am here.' Your culture and heritage isn’t reflected properly within these classrooms, and these teachers will be complicit in silencing your voice. But again we will refute those notions and shout ‘I am here!’”
One Black elder statesman did take the podium – Tim Wilson A former college football coach, a member of three governor’s cabinets and a leader of the Seeds of Peace Camp and programs in Otisfield and Portland. Wilson indicted the administration of Gov. Janet Mills for a lack of diversity.
“You people who are white, I need you to just think a minute, we have in Augusta a governor, we do not have one person of color in her cabinet.”
And Wilson exhorted his young listeners to make room for themselves at the tables of power.
“This is going to be a long fight, this isn’t just a little quick program. Put your boots on! Cause you’re going to be at it for a while.”
Under a modest police presence, the crowd marched up Congress Street and over to the Abyssinian Meetinghouse, now under reconstruction. They recited various chants often used by Black Lives Lives Matter protesters, like “take it to the streets, defund the police, no justice no peace.”
After more speeches they crossed back across town by Congress Square, where another Juneteenth event – a celebration of poetry and printmaking, was just wrapping up.
Athena Lynch of Portland organized the event. She says she is hopeful that after so many cycles of progress and loss for Black Americans, the tumultuous events of the past month will lead to a more permanent change in the nation.
But that means committed work ahead, she says, like a farmer working to improve the land: “Once you harvest your crops after a certain amount of times, you do a controlled burn. You have to turn that soil. Well now is the time for us to turn that soil."
The rally of young activists continued to snake around the city through the evening, ending at Deering Oaks Park, where hundreds listened to music and words honoring Black pain and celebrating Black joy.
Willis Ryder Arnold contributed to this report.