The blue and red flag rose inch by inch over the Salt Lake City-County Building on Monday afternoon as individuals each took a turn hoisting the Juneteenth flag.

The collective effort behind the flag-raising ceremony reflected the generations of sacrifice and dedication that have gone into ensuring equal freedoms in Utah and across the country. Community members held hands, raised fists and shed tears as they sang and reflected on the holiday.

“As a part of our annual commemoration, we always do a libation. We connect with our ancestors and thank them and honor them for laying the framework, the foundation that has brought us thus far on our way,” Ogden NAACP President Betty Sawyer said before inviting the crowd gathered for the ceremony to shout out names of individuals in their families or communities who they felt needed to be remembered. Libations traditionally involve the pouring out of a drink in memory of the dead, but this one did not.

“I always acknowledge those who've gone before me who laid that foundation,” Rep. Sandra Hollins said. “Being the first Black woman as a state legislator, I am the vision of people who have laid that foundation.”

Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S. — specifically the day the last enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, learned that they had been freed on June 19, 1865. It was over 2½ years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and about two months after the Civil War ended. The holiday originated in Galveston the next year, and celebrations eventually spread across the country before becoming a federal holiday in 2021.

The Juneteenth flag is seen during the flag-raising ceremony for Juneteenth at the Salt Lake City and County Building in Salt Lake City on June 19, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

A continued commitment to freedom

The ceremony — now in its third year with the city's backing — served as not only a time to reflect on the history and triumphs of African Americans but to give renewed calls for racial justice in the state.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall committed to addressing racial disparities that persist in education, health care, housing and criminal justice systems by collaborating with community leaders, organizations and individuals.

“Juneteenth reminds us that freedom and justice are not easily won and that we must fight for them every day,” Mendenhall said. “We must continue to challenge systemic racism, advocate for social and economic equality and build bridges that bring our community closer together.”

Sawyer encouraged individuals to have the courage to speak up about injustices and act.

“When someone says something — whether it's at the family dinner, at the water fountain or in the boardroom — that we know is wrong, we have to have the courage to stand alone and call it out with grace,” she said. “We have to do it with honesty because us shrinking and acting like it didn't happen has not gotten us very far. We're going to have to be bold and courageous enough to stand up, even if we stand alone, to say, ‘No, that's not right. No, equity looks like this and we need to work toward that.’”

MJ Powell is a lifelong Salt Lake City resident who now works with the youth and college division of the national NAACP as well as being a diversity, equity and inclusion intern with the Utah Jazz. He said the most meaningful part of Juneteenth is understanding how laws and policy can often leave behind certain communities.

“I want to see more policy rooted in positive intention of loving thy neighbor and not necessarily getting into the polarizing items such as critical race theory,” he said. “Us all coming together today — regardless of where we live in the city or our racial demographic — it's us demonstrating that we are the Beloved Community and that we can embrace the Utah way, and that means loving thy neighbor and supporting each other in the times that really matter.”

Betty Sawyer, executive director of the Project Success Coalition and Utah Juneteenth Freedom & Heritage Festival, helps siblings Xander, 12, and Zoe Clark, 9, and Ashley Cleveland and Audre Mcdonald, 6, raise the flag for Juneteenth at the Salt Lake City and County Building in Salt Lake City on June 19, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

A holiday for everyone

For both Powell and Everett Spencer, a Utah-based drummer, Juneteenth isn't just for the African American community; it's for everybody. Spencer traveled across the U.S. during a push to get Juneteenth recognized as a federal holiday. He hopes one day Juneteenth becomes as big of a celebration as the Fourth of July.

“Everybody should more and more be involved in this holiday to bring it to light. ... This is our independence as well and our independence is your independence,” he said. “I’m really excited about the future for my grandkids because they get a chance to understand the history of African Americans, what we had to do to become free, how long it took for us to be free and then ultimately, the freedoms that we get to enjoy now.”

Powell added, “This isn't just meant for the African American community. As we know, Black history is American history. This is meant for everybody in the Salt Lake City community and nationwide to learn the historical significance of the holiday, but also to celebrate through music, dance and eating really good food.”