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WNYers share the meaning of Juneteenth

Members of the Black community in Buffalo told 2 On Your Side what the day means for them.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Juneteenth commemorates the day enslaved persons in Galveston, Texas were notified of their freedom. Over the years, people in Western New York have found unique ways to celebrate what the day means to them. 

Members of the community told 2 On Your Side's Karys Belger why the day is so important, especially as attention on the day increases. 

Jennifer Earle Jones, the president of Juneteenth Inc., says she could remember the first festival that took place in Buffalo.

"It was before a lot of the businesses on Jefferson were gone," she said. 

Last year, she had to oversee the first virtual festival due to the COVID 19 pandemic. The format is going to be repeated this year as an extra precaution. 

Still, Jones says she wants people to continue learning about why the day is so important. 

"Juneteenth is not only a celebration. We have to remember why Juneteenth is exalted today," she told 2 On Your Side. 

She's also noticed how more people in Buffalo and across the country have paid attention to Juneteenth. She says interest did pick up after the Black Lives Matter Protests that took place in the summer of 2020. 

Jones explained, the key is making sure people don't forget the progress that's been made for racial equity, and also how much more work needs to be done. 

"We know things are not equal in all areas but we still celebrate where we come from. We still celebrate where our ancestors have brought us from."

For Kent Olden, his reverence for the holiday is deeply tied to his relationship with his ancestor, the abolitionist Harriet Tubman. He told 2 On Your Side's Karys Belger, he was always taught the history of Juneteenth and would celebrate the day in place of July Fourth.

"Juneteenth was a given. We understood that Juneteenth was our Independence Day not necessarily the Fourth of July."

Now, Olden says he is pouring into the next generation the same way his elders poured into him. For him, this means telling his daughters about their heritage so they're empowered to continue the work. 

"We’re teaching the generations that come after us so that when it’s their turn, it's a seamless transition. We gotta keep the party going because it is a party and we love it." 

This sentiment was echoed by Marcus Brown, the former president of the Buffalo Juneteenth Festival. 

Brown remembers a time when he was made to feel ashamed about his history and he wants generations that come after him to avoid this feeling and take possession of the knowledge that's been passed down. 

"I sat in classes that told me my race wasn’t good enough. I sat there and I felt it and I’m sure other people feel it too. It’s time for us to recognize it and tell the truth about our history," he said. 

As for what this looks like, Brown says it means inviting more people to learn about the history of Black people in America. 

"To me, Juneteenth is a celebration of the contributions of our ancestors. We need to let the young folks know the legacy that our ancestors have left for us...a beautiful legacy."

Ras Jomo Akono, the Executive Vice President of Juneteenth, says the day is about controlling the narrative and reclaiming the knowledge of previous generations. This mantra is represented by the symbol of Sankofa. It's a bird facing backward with food in its mouth with its feet facing forward. The symbol originated in Ghana.

 "That is why we embrace the symbol of Sankofa which means 'go back, fetch and return'. It means it is not wrong to go back in our history, find out what is needed, and move forward." 

Dayatra Hassan says Juneteenth is a reminder of how much more work needs to be done to achieve equality. 

"For us, for a lot of us, we were in the dark as well in the Black community."

"It takes you know, people really opening up for change and I can feel it,  I can feel that energy. Although I do still see that the path ahead is long but I definitely see like results from the work that has been done."

Buffalo's Juneteenth Festivities are being held virtually. More information can be found here