June 19th, or Juneteenth, commemorates the day that Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas and told enslaved African Americans that they were free – more than two years after the end of the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation that declared all slaves free.
Celebrations began the following year to commemorate the event and the date has been celebrated as something of a second Independence Day in African American communities ever since. In recent decades, the movement to make Juneteenth an official holiday has grown.
In Minneapolis, the city’s human resources department recommended in April to make Juneteenth the city’s 12th paid holiday. On May 14 the Minneapolis City Council made it official, followed by the country as a whole when President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law on June 17.
Some residents see the declaration of Juneteenth a national holiday as tokenistic as others see a sign of hope.
“For Juneteenth this year, it’s something special. We’re focusing on the future and the future is the kids,” James Johnson of Worldwide Outreach for Christ church tells Al Jazeera. “For it now to be a national holiday, it’s something special and we want to express that.”
While jubilant celebrations were taking place across Minneapolis and its “twin city” of St. Paul on Saturday, some events have nothing to do with the recent moves by local and federal governments.
“It changes nothing,” Kevin Reese, founder of Until We Are All Free, a Minneapolis-based human-rights focused organisation led by formerly imprisoned people, tells Al Jazeera.
He was preparing to host a community event in the afternoon at a south Minneapolis café, featuring local performers and artists alongside opportunities for prayer and community conversations.
“It’s another tokenising gesture from America towards descendants of slaves. It really does nothing and there’s nothing America can do short of reparations … that would satisfy me.”
Before this year, Until We Are All Free partnered with other community groups during previous Juneteenths, but this year they are holding their own block party event because of the group’s continuous growth. “This will be our first annual event,” Reese says. “We’re preparing for 500 people.”
Just weeks after Minneapolis designated Juneteenth a holiday, Mayor Jacob Frey began pushing for George Floyd Square, which has been barricaded by the community since Floyd’s murder, to be opened to traffic again.
City Council members have accused the mayor of misusing the emergency powers he has had during the pandemic to enter into a $359,000 contract with a community group to reopen the intersection.
Tony Smith, who was passing the warm morning in a slice of shade in the square, believes that reopening is important for the businesses that have been struggling because of the closure but that memorials should be left in place and preserved.
He was spending Juneteenth collecting donations for those in the city’s several homeless encampments through Catholic Charities, a local nonprofit.
“Usually I’m barbequing and [spending Juneteenth in] solitude,” he tells Al Jazeera. “It’s nothing to be happy about, Juneteenth. It’s a lot of anger you know … When I heard that [Biden] made it a national holiday, that took some of the anger away.”
On Minneapolis’ northside, a vast, parking-lot-wide celebration complete with a smattering of booths and tents set up by community groups and yet another bouncy house, was rapidly taking shape among a growing crowd.
The founder and director of Black Bold and Brilliant and one of the organisers of the event, Wisdom Mawusi, is busily setting up a space she’s called the Black Man Cave said “We wanted to do something and acknowledge, celebrate Black men,” she tells Al Jazeera. “We’re creating a nice space for Black men to honour and respect them and all that they do and how important they are in our community. Sometimes they don’t get that positive acknowledgement enough.”
Comer X. Henry, the manager of peer recovery services at the Twin Cities Recovery Project – an organisation offering support and services to those struggling with substance use disorder tells Al Jazeera that Juneteenth is “a celebration of the so-called freedom of the slaves. It means a lot to me in two aspects – one is that we are physically free. The second, my truth, is that we’re still mentally locked up and still dependent on everybody besides ourselves”.
When it comes to the designation of Juneteenth as a municipal and national holiday, Henry says that “it’s definitely a big step and I think we’re moving in the right direction but it’s a little deeper and more complicated to me. [We’re] dealing with white supremacy and still suffering.”