Matthew Rhodes/Register: Juneteenth is the holiday that commemorates and celebrates the freeing of slaves after the Civil War in the United States. Fedora Sutton (above, second from left) dances with attendees of Brookings’ first Juneteenth celebration at Pioneer Park to music of African tribal drums. Nieema Thasing (below) dances in celebration alongside some of the children who were in the audience.

Brookings residents on Friday gathered for the community’s first public celebration of Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.

The date marks the freeing of enslaved African-Americans in Texas on June 19, 1865, more than two years after Abraham Lincoln had instituted the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Civil War ended in 1865, and Union General Gordan Granger reread the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston, Texas, formally instating the union of the United States and the freedom of the enslaved. Juneteenth has many names; “Emancipation Day” and “Freedom Day” are the most common.

Around a hundred people attended the event, bringing with them their families and making a picnic out of the evening. Most people in attendance wore PPE masks and maintained social distancing.

The event included booths for voter registration, an information booth passing out masks and bottled water and a booth for the Brookings Human Rights Commission.

South Dakota State University Professor Emerita Fedora Sutton welcomed the crowd to the celebration and gave some background on the Juneteenth holiday. She then invited the Native American solidarity dancers to the stage and expressed the importance of Native American culture during the holiday as recognition for their ancestral plights.

Leading the dance was SDSU assistant professor Mark Freeland, who asked everyone to join in a Round Dance, an ancient dance that signifies unity for all groups who partake.

Following the dance, the Rev. Daren Junker of United Parish of Elkton read the Emancipation Proclamation as it was written by Abraham Lincoln in 1863.

After the reading, Jamaal Cummings of the SDSU Foundation spoke briefly that while it is good to have such a celebration, there is still a substantial amount of work to be done and progress to be made in the world of equality and justice for black lives.

There was a panel discussion after Cummings’ speech. Alex Wood, retention adviser for African-American programs at SDSU, moderated the panel and read some questions. The panel consisted of Elkton councilwoman Nieema Thasing, SDSU Chief Diversity Officer Kas Williams and Cummings. 

Wood asked questions about what their feelings were when they first heard the Emancipation Proclamation and what their ancestors would have felt upon hearing it, what freedom means to them, and what words of advice the panel could give to those who fight and deal with racism on a daily basis.

Thasing focused on how progress can be made. She said that so many people are too afraid to have the conversation about how to move through racism and racial stereotypes that prevent others from wanting to progress. But she said that much of the conversation is instead about others listening.

“We ain’t afraid of you,” Thasing said. “We just want you to understand.”

Williams spoke about her transition of moving to Brookings from the South, saying the prevalence and reality of racism is very real in South Dakota; it is just conveyed differently through “silence.” She said that freedom is to “simply live without fear,” but most minorities in this country are still not yet free because they live within the confines of racial fear and inequality.

Cummings spoke about his personal life and fears due to racism he experiences on a daily basis. He said he refuses to go for a run at night knowing that he could get into trouble for it or even killed, like Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery was chased down and killed while he was out for a jog last February in Georgia. The father and son who pursued Arbery, who claim they thought he was a burglary suspect, are now facing murder and assault charges and a hate crime investigation.

Cummings also said he is terrified to get pulled over because, “What if I catch a cop on a bad day?”

Wood ended the panel discussion by lending some advice to those who are not a minority and want to better understand and converse about race relations.

“Being uncomfortable doesn’t put you in chains,” Wood said. “Being uncomfortable gives you the opportunity to grow.”

After the panel, the Rev. Pete Grassow of First United Methodist Church in Brookings read General Order No. 3, the official order read by Gen. Gordan Granger declaring all slaves to be free.

Following the re-reading, Thasing invited a participant to read a letter written by Rep. Dusty Johnson to Gov. Kristi Noem, asking her to officially recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday in South Dakota. After the reading, Thasing read Noem’s proclamation of June 16, 2020, as Juneteenth Day.

However, Noem’s proclamation does not make Juneteenth an officially recognized state holiday. South Dakota is one of only three states that does not officially recognize the holiday annually.

Thasing spoke about the great heights African-Americans have reached in this country and of the great lows African-Americans have experienced, too. She said great progress can and will be made, but it is vitally important that the past be remembered and understood so that it may not be repeated in the future, and better lives will be had for it.

Thasing then closed the celebration by inviting everyone up to the front of the bandshell stage to dance and sing and cheer, saying, “I’m free at last.”

Contact Matthew Rhodes at mrhodes@brookingsregister.com.

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