St. Louis-area residents celebrate Juneteenth, say ‘the work is not over’
At a north St. Louis County celebration, community members and leaders shared what Juneteenth means to them.
“Freedom, equality, and justice,” Ferguson Mayor Ella Jones said at a parade in nearby Dellwood. “And that's why we out here. No, we have not arrived yet, but we’re working on it. It's a day-to-day journey.”
Jones stood on a corner holding a red, yellow and green flag that said, “Ferguson Juneteenth Celebration.” It was so big that she had to use both hands to wave it back and forth.
“We know the work is not over,” she said.
Families waved from folding chairs along the West Florissant Avenue parade route Monday, wearing the same colors.
Groups of dancers marched in step, while politicians yelled, “Happy Juneteenth” to their constituents. Local businesses handed out candy and shirts.
The celebration was part of “Five Days of Black Joy,” put on by north St. Louis County leaders. The events culminated in Monday’s celebrations of Juneteenth, which commemorates the day in 1865 when enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, found out they were free, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
St. Louis County Council Chairwoman Shalonda Webb grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, and has been celebrating Juneteenth since she was a child.
“Now I've been in St. Louis 25 years, I'm elated to see the awareness and the commitment to Juneteenth grow so greatly,” Webb said.
In 2021, President Joe Biden made Juneteenth a federal holiday. This year, more than half of states will also recognize Juneteenth, including Missouri and Illinois. Even as Juneteenth has become more mainstream, many at Monday’s parade said there is still work to do.
Michael Brown Sr. was the grand marshal of the parade, walking at the front holding a Juneteenth flag and a photo of his son Michael Brown Jr. in his Normandy High School graduation cap and gown. The photo was taken a few months before a Ferguson police officer killed the teenager, sparking global outrage and protests against police brutality.
Brown says Juneteenth is an important opportunity to celebrate and be together.
“It definitely gives us something to look forward to,” Brown said. “Change, you know, it’s a lot of work with change, but this gives us a start on having something that we can claim for ourselves.”
As Brown walked by, Natalie Parks Smith held her 16-month-old daughter on her hip.
“We wanted to start teaching our daughter about her history and about the importance of Juneteenth and the importance of her freedom, and we wanted to support Ferguson, so we chose this parade to come to,” she said.
Parks Smith said that though the holiday has brought more awareness, in some ways she thinks things are not moving in the right direction.
“Even at the school board level, we're seeing censorship or seeing policies and laws trying to be passed to decrease the amount of history that people know,” Parks Smith said. “So even though we now have the holiday, I think we're actually still going backwards.”
U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis County, wants more education about what slavery looked like in St. Louis. That would include how the Mississippi was used to transport enslaved Black people and the downtown locations of slave pens and auction blocks.
“When we walk around St. Louis, not just today, but any other day, and we stop a regular person on the street and ask them the history of the slave trade right here in St. Louis, how many can actually speak to it?” Bush asked. “That's the work that we have to do.”
Webb hopes the collaboration that led to this event will also bring positive change.
“The north county leaders came together to make this five days of Black joy,” Webb said. “I know that we're not just going to do this for celebratory reasons, we can now move forward collectively for the business of the Black people in our community.”