Celebrating Juneteenth in Oregon and at Home


Though Juneteenth precedes the other mid-June holidays of Fathers’ Day and the Summer Solstice (and school ending for some), explaining the meaning of Juneteenth can be more complex than these other celebrations. Juneteenth observes the end of slavery in the United States, a topic not easily discussed through gift-buying or fireworks. 

Texas became the first state to declare Juneteenth a holiday in 1980. The date celebrates the day in 1865 when Union troops liberated the last of Confederate slaves in Galveston, Texas, over two years after Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. Former Texas slaves began marking the day each year by organizing church and food-centered activities until the celebrations spread in size and distance. 

Juneteenth in Oregon

Clara Peoples introduced Juneteenth to Oregon in 1945 at the Kaiser Shipyards in Portland after arriving from Oklahoma.  She helped organize Portland’s annual celebration in 1972 with a parade, live music, art, food and booths full of educational, cultural and other community resources. On the heels of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, pressure from Oregonians convinced state representatives to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday, 50 years after Clara Peoples’ first parade.  

This year, Juneteenth celebrations will occur all over Oregon. According to the Black Alliance and Social Empowerment (BASE), these festivities celebrate freedom and support black-owned businesses. BASE operates in Southern Oregon and works to build inclusive communities and dismantle racism by providing safe places for black people to advance through social programs and education.  

Juneteenth at Home

Seeing the repeated acts of violence against members of black and indigenous communities has made me confront my white privilege and made me want to do better.  I grew up in a diverse community and did not recognize racial inequality until I went to a different high school. Now, I worry my children will not be exposed to enough diversity to recognize their privilege without my help. 

Though I am uncertain on how to begin educating my children about social injustices, I know I must do something. Just as the Black Lives Matter protest prompted many of us to inspect our own lives and purpose, Juneteenth has offered an excellent opportunity to start this dialogue with my son. 

Books are a gateway in our family for many topics, and luckily, there are lots of children’s books specifically about Juneteenth. More still, many have been written for children to understand inclusivity and how to be an ally to those facing oppression. We have been taking advantage of Multnomah County Library’s Juneteenth catalogue.

Families who love music and performances can also enjoy the virtual Juneteenth celebration by Juneteenth Oregon produced by PDX Jazz. In pre-Covid times (and hopefully post-Covid ones, too), the Juneteenth Oregon celebration offers many chances for families to get involved as a way to explore diversity: a parade, a Miss Juneteenth pageant, being vendors, and volunteering. 

For over 150 years, Juneteenth has been celebrated nationwide, but only this week the U.S. Senate voted to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday. This exemplifies the struggle black and indigenous communities have faced to have their lives, histories, and communities honored and valued. Celebrating Juneteenth with our children through books and musical performances may not end racism or white privilege, but it is a start.