Omar Montgomery holds up his arm during a parade to mark Juneteenth, Saturday, June 19, 2021, in Denver. Several events were being staged around the Mile High City as well as nationwide to commemorate June 19, 1865, when African-Americans in Texas learned of their freedom, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The Juneteenth celebration of the end of slavery has new relevance and fervor this year as both Aurora and the state have designated the day as an officials holidays, giving government workers time off to reflect on more than 150 years of emancipation.

Proponents say making June 19 an official holiday across the state and in Aurora, home to one of the largest Black communities in the state, is a victory for offering Juneteenth as a time to take stock of the progress made since the first Africans arrived in North America kidnapped and forced into slavery, and consider the work that remains to be done to achieve equality.

A handful of public celebrations are taking place across the Aurora-Denver metropolitan area this week, and The Sentinel reached out to local Black leaders to ask about the holiday’s significance for people of color:

On June 19, 1865 — more than two months after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox and two-and-a-half years after Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation — hundreds of thousands of slaves residing in Texas were officially freed.

Slaveowners had fled the South for the relative safety of Texas as the tide of the Civil War turned against the Confederacy. The Union army’s success in the South eventually left Texas as one of the last holdouts of the pro-slavery rebellion, whose forces were commanded by Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith.

As news of Lee’s surrender and other Confederate losses reached Texas, the rebel army began to disintegrate. Soldiers deserted en masse and in some cases participated in looting.

There would be no gallant last stand — on May 30, Smith wrote that he was “a commander without an army, a general without troops.” He surrendered officially a few days later. In June, Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger was dispatched along with 2,000 or so federal troops to formally take control of the state.

Opal Lee answers a question during an interview at her home Thursday, July 1, 2021, in Fort Worth, Texas. Opal Lee’s dream of seeing Juneteenth become a federal holiday was finally realized over the summer, but the energetic woman who spent years rallying people to join her push for the day commemorating the end of slavery is hardly letting up on a lifetime of work teaching and helping others.(AP Photo/LM Otero)

Upon arriving in Galveston, one of Granger’s first priorities was to publicize the news of the Emancipation Proclamation, by which Lincoln freed slaves kept in the 10 U.S. states that remained in rebellion at the end of 1862.

Sources disagree on how exactly Granger’s General Order No. 3 was made public, with some saying the general’s men marched through the streets, reading it in front of the Union army headquarters as well as at a customs house and courthouse, and a Black church. Others say the order was published in local newspapers without fanfare on the part of Granger or his men.

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” begins a handwritten copy of Granger’s order.

“This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

This updated handout photo provided by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum on Tuesday, June 8, 2021 shows a signed copy of Emancipation Proclamation. (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum photo via AP)

In reality, Granger’s order did not instantly free the 250,000 slaves that historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. estimates were residing in Texas at the time. Gates says the mayor of Galveston forced newly-freed Blacks back to work, and he recounts one story of a Texas woman who remained enslaved for six more years after the order was published.

Texas wasn’t even the last corner of the Union where slavery was formally abolished — the practice continued legally in Kentucky and Delaware until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in December 1865.

Dawon Baker carries a sign to round up marchers from the University of Colorado to take part in a parade to mark Juneteenth on Saturday, June 19, 2021, in Denver. Several events were being staged around the Mile High City as well as nationwide to commemorate June 19, 1865, when African-Americans in Texas learned of their freedom, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

But Granger’s announcement of emancipation represented a massive step toward equality for Black Americans, affirming legal rights for hundreds of thousands of people, at least on paper, for the first time in their lives.

Public celebrations of Juneteenth have taken place each year since 1866 on the anniversary of the events in Galveston. Since 2020, more and more communities across the U.S. have officially embraced the Juneteenth holiday and its significance for Black Americans.

Aurora’s City Council voted earlier this year to add Juneteenth to the city’s holiday calendar. Colorado’s legislature followed suit, passing a bill sponsored by Black lawmakers, including Aurora Sen. Janet Buckner, which made Juneteenth a legal state holiday.

Princess Rayniyiah Alexander, of Denver, wears her crown during a parade to mark Juneteenth, Saturday, June 19, 2021, in Denver. Several events were being staged around the Mile High City as well as nationwide to commemorate June 19, 1865, when African-Americans in Texas learned of their freedom, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

“A lot of Coloradans are saying, you know, the Fourth of July is important, but Juneteenth is even more important for people of color,” Buckner told The Sentinel last week. “It’s a day for people of color, but for everyone it should be a day of hope.”

For Black Americans, Juneteenth is a time to celebrate how far the nation has come in delivering on its founding promises of liberty and equality. It’s also a time for all people to reflect on the discrepancies that remain between those lofty promises and reality.

State Sen. Rhonda Fields, another member of Aurora’s Black legislative delegation, described how Texans hid the news of emancipation from their slaves.

“There was a lot of trickery done,” Fields said. “They kept those people working and harvesting the farms until they were told eventually that they were free. Some slaveowners wanted to continue to profit off the bodies and the labor of these slaves.”

“It’s more than just a day off,” she said. “It’s a day to reflect, and it reminds us that we still have work to do.”

Janet Buckner speaks during a Democratic watch party on Tuesday Nov. 08, 2016 at Radisson Hotel Denver Southeast.
Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

Buckner said she received “hate mail” after the Juneteenth bill was introduced from those who questioned the importance of the holiday, which she said many Black people call “America’s second Independence Day.”

She and Fields both said they were glad to hear that Aurora voted to recognize the holiday on an ongoing basis.

“It’s a small victory, acknowledging that back in the day that was a practice, where Black people were bought and sold as property,” Fields said.

Dexter Nelson, the Associate Curator of Black History and Cultural Heritage at History Colorado, said that the organization has evidence of Juneteenth being celebrated in Five Points as early as 1953. A local business owner named Otha Rice, who operated Rice’s Tap Room and Oven in the neighborhood, spearheaded the city’s first Juneteenth celebration.

Black Coloradans who came to the state from the South during the Great Migration are believed to have brought the holiday with them, Nelson said. Colorado wasn’t as big a migration hub as midwestern cities such as Chicago and Detroit, but Nelson said for some Black families Colorado was seen as a land of opportunity.

“It was definitely desirable,” he said.

History Colorado will be at the Juneteenth Music Festival in Denver, where it will be spreading the word about a new virtual Black history tour in the History Colorado app.

“We’re trying to create new ways we can make our content more accessible to everyone,” Nelson said.

Barbara Shannon-Banister, founder of Aurora’s NAACP and former manager of the city’s Community Relations Department, was instrumental in creating Aurora’s yearly MLK Day celebrations. Shannon-Banister said Aurora is the only city in the nation to have a weeklong observance of the civil rights hero, which is now in its 36th year.

The Juneteenth flag, commemorating the day that slavery ended in the U.S., flies in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, June 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

But despite coming from a family of civil rights activists, it took Shannon-Banister many years to learn about Juneteenth. She grew up in New Orleans, but even living in the state next to Texas she never heard anything about Juneteenth growing up. It wasn’t mentioned in any of the textbooks used in her segregated school, which were hand-me-downs from white students with the names of previous owners erased.

“In the segregated South, you didn’t speak up about those things,” she said.

It wasn’t until moving to Casper, Wyoming that she first learned of the holiday through some neighbors, who would always have a barbeque on that day. When she later moved to Aurora, her next door neighbor was from Texas and celebrated the holiday as well.

She’s glad that knowledge of the holiday and its significance is becoming more widespread, along with other aspects of Black history “because we as a community are requiring that those things happen.”

City spokesman Michael Brannen said Aurora’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plans to participate in a Juneteenth celebration at CU Anschutz from noon to 1:30 p.m. on Thursday. The event will include food trucks, music and games.

On June 6, Mayor Mike Coffman also acknowledged the upcoming holiday at the start of the Aurora City Council’s weekly meeting, remarking that “celebrating Juneteenth reminds each of us of the precious promise of freedom, equality and opportunity which are at the core of the American Dream.”

“And, too, it reminds us that much work needs to be done to improve equity, inclusion and equal rights in order to overcome racism in our country and in our community,” he said.

Fields said she plans to attend the annual celebration of Juneteenth in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. Buckner also said she plans to take part in the June 20 march in the city.

President Joe Biden points to Opal Lee after signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, June 17, 2021, in Washington. From left, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif, Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., Opal Lee, Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., Vice President Kamala Harris, House Majority Whip James Clyburn of S.C., Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, obscured, Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Since becoming a federal holiday last year, a number of private companies are marking the day as a paid day off along with banks and government offices. Kevin Hougen, president of Aurora’s Chamber of Commerce, said that some chamber members are taking the day off but there isn’t a clear consensus yet since the federal holiday is still so new. Businesses tend to follow the direction of the city government and banks, he said. The chamber itself will be closed Monday in observance.

“This is a fairly new opportunity to celebrate,” he said.

CU Anschutz, along with the rest of the University of Colorado system, announced in May that it will give faculty and staff an additional personal day to use anytime before the end of the year.

“Recognizing holidays is an important step toward advancing our mission to be an inclusive and equitable institution and achieving the kind of transformational change we all want,” university leadership said in a message. “We still have much work to do to create an environment where everyone is included, valued, and respected.”

Juneteenth is the first new federal holiday since the creation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which was observed at the national level beginning in 1986.

For those who can’t make it to any of the official Juneteenth celebrations this week and weekend, Buckner and Fields said Juneteenth can be commemorated by reflection on the significance of emancipation and the legacy of civil rights.

“I think it’s a time of reflection, and in the United States, we have so much to reflect and improve upon,” Buckner said. “It’s a time to celebrate, and educate people, and come together, and get a better understanding of one another.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that Aurora’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is one of the participants in the Juneteenth celebration at CU Anschutz.

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