Detroit hosts first Juneteenth event to commemorate end of slavery

Payne Lubbers
The Detroit News
Banners representing pillars of Black Heritage including chemist Percy Lavon Julian line the green space at Spirit Plaza in Detroit during a  Juneteenth celebration Wednesday.

Detroit — Visitors gathered in a crowded, sun-soaked Spirit Plaza on Wednesday, as black community leaders shared stories of struggle and progress at the city's first official Juneteenth celebration. 

The Detroit Department of Civil Rights, Inclusion and Opportunity organized the event with the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. On this day in 1865, Texas freed the last of America's slaves in America after learning about the South's surrender in the Civil War two months earlier. 

Spirit Plaza was a fitting location for the event as it embodies the city's history of progress and struggle, Mayor Mike Duggan said.

Ayana Love, 24, enjoys the activity at the Juneteenth celebration in Spirit Plaza Wednesday.

"It's a time to celebrate the progress since Emancipation, and a time to reflect on how much work we have to do to get to true equality," said Duggan, speaking in front of the Spirit of Detroit statue. 

Duggan also congratulated the Detroit Youth Choir for its performance on "America's Got Talent" television show and said the choir exemplified everything good about the city. 

"I stand here today on this Juneteenth and I think the future of our city is in great hands, with the generation we've got coming up," he said.

Food trucks from local black-owned restaurants lined the back of the plaza, and musical groups provided entertainment on stage, including the Mosaic Youth Scholars Choir. Educators from the Charles H. Wright Museum also shared the history of the holiday and other stories from the struggle for civil rights and equality. 

Britnee Carter does a West African dance accompanied by African percussionist Sowande Keita during the Juneteeth celebration in Spirit Plaza.

While slavery had been illegal in the United States since 1863 through the Emancipation Proclamation, the ongoing Civil War prevented the news from reaching many black slaves in the American South until the war's conclusion in 1865. 

City Council President Pro-Tem Mary Sheffield encouraged visitors to educate themselves on black history. Detroit's population is more than 80% African American.

"We can all learn a little more about those who sacrificed and have given up so much for us to be here today," Sheffield said.

Issues of police brutality, mass incarceration and access to affordable housing still need to be addressed, she said. 

"The truth is we have a lot more work to do. While we have made so much progress, there are still systemic issues that are really bounding African-American people in this country," Sheffield said. 

"Today should also be about self-reflection, and what we all can do to make sure we are living the truth of a dream our ancestors had before us. So today, I encourage you all to remember the past, embrace where we are today and look to the future for what all of us can do to continue the dream and the fight of equality for all of us."

Edward Foxworth III, interim director of education at the Charles H. Wright Museum, also shared thoughts about the history of the holiday. 

"Can you imagine? Everyone here being told, after the Civil Rights Movement, that you're free, you can go, and then you leave," Foxworth said. "But then, imagine for the next two years, you're still operating as an enslaved person. In Galveston, Texas, June 19, 1865, they got the news that they are now free, and slavery is abolished."