SALT LAKE CITY — For more than three decades, Betty Sawyer has been involved in or at the helm of Utah’s Juneteenth celebration.
But like many who’ve commemorated June 19 as a sacred American holiday for years, this Juneteenth feels different.
And as she led Salt Lake County’s flag-raising ceremony Friday, it was clear that the chosen theme “United in Hope” was the right choice, even though she didn’t know the world would be gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic and the country upended by daily protests over the treatment of Black Americans by police.
“We’ve been dealing with so much,” said Sawyer, who is the community engagement coordinator in access and diversity at Weber State University, as well as a fixture in leading efforts to honor Black leaders and recognize Black history in Utah.
“It has been one thing after another — COVID, and then we all watched a man actually be murdered before our eyes, and so we’re saying, ‘Wait a minute, this is not the America we love. This is not the America we’re supposed to be.’”
Juneteenth may not be something every Utahn celebrates or even understands as a significant American anniversary. But many like Sawyer, Utah State Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, and Salt Lake County’s training and development facilitator Emma Houston, have been working to make celebrations like Juneteenth mainstream for many years.
In 2016, Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill declaring Juneteenth an observance holiday, which means it isn’t a legal holiday but it is recognized on the third Saturday of June as Juneteenth Freedom Day. That bill was sponsored by Hollins, who spent Thursday shepherding a bill that bans “knee-on-neck” restraints by law enforcement, a measure that passed with just five dissenting votes in both houses during a special session Thursday.
Juneteenth is a mashup of June and 19th, and it celebrates the official end of slavery in the United States. It’s a day most African Americans have celebrated for decades as the day in 1865 when Army Gen. Gordon Granger and his troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, letting some of the last enslaved Americans know that they were free.
The Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, had officially outlawed slavery in the U.S. and its territories nearly 2 1/2 years earlier.
And while education has played a role in increasing support for the date, which is recognized in 47 states, most agree that the death of George Floyd at the hands of four Minnesota police officers, and the daily protests that have followed have made the anniversary feel more universal and a celebration more urgent.
“I think one of the things that we’ve seen over the years is that additional people show up. It’s not just the Black community,” Sawyer said. “It’s not just families that have adopted Black children. ... It’s raising (awareness) and moving across our whole community. ... And like someone said, ‘It’s not a Black issue. It’s a human issue.’ So we’re seeing right now all over the world, humanity coming together.”
About 100 people gathered outside the Salt Lake County Government Center Friday for the commemoration that culminated with a flag raising and song. By 3 p.m., thousands were marching for police reform in downtown Salt Lake City with Juneteenth celebrations planned for Friday night and on Saturday in Ogden.
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson read a proclamation at Friday’s ceremony, and a number of speakers, including Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, Houston and Sawyer, who serve on the Governor’s Black Advisory Council, shared thoughts on why this Juneteenth feels even more significant than usual.
“In 1862, a piece of paper by executive order declared that it was illegal for a human to be bought or sold,” Houston said, running through the constitutional amendments that gave Blacks freedom, citizenship and the right to vote. “African Americans and Black people still continue to fight against racism, systemic oppression in hopes of true equality 155 years later. We celebrate Juneteenth because of the promise of freedom, of family, of faith, and because we are history. I’m going to say that again. We are history. We continue to stand firm, to be resilient, to be brave, because we know we have a goodly heritage.”
She offered a rousing speech about the contributions of Black Americans.
“We believe and have faith in our God, that he did not bring us from back there, to over here, to leave us,” she said. “We have faith that we are here on this journey to change the hearts and minds of individuals. We are 100 percent human. So on this date, in the city of Salt Lake and the state of Utah, in this place we call America ... the call to action is this: Be better, do better. ... Be courageous.”
Before reading the proclamation, Wilson thanked those who’ve been protesting and those who’ve been engaging and teaching others.
“These are important times,” Wilson said, acknowledging the importance of continuing to talk about issues and listening to people whose experiences are different from their own. “We are at Salt Lake County right now doubling down on that commitment. ... It will take a very, very deep change within our community.”
McAdams said this year’s celebration should include some introspection and honesty about the realities facing Black Americans.
“Juneteenth is traditionally a time of reflection and self-assessment,” McAdams said. “Today, our country faces an important moment of reckoning in the aftermath of horrific violence against Black Americans. So today is a day when we all should engage in self-reflection and assessment about how we can be better as individuals, and how we can be better as a country.”
After his remarks, Sawyer said the community would look to him in leading the effort to make Juneteenth a national holiday.
Nikki Walker and her son, Jacob, were among those enjoying the festivities Friday.
“Obscure? Not so much,” Walker said of the Juneteenth anniversary. “Hidden in plain sight is more like it. This holiday that celebrates Black freedom and Black joy has been celebrated in the Utah community for literal decades. I am grateful, though, that more people are paying attention this year. Regardless, we are going to celebrate anyway.”
“Juneteenth means more to me than the July 4,” said Carol Matthews-Shifflett, CEO and founder of Sojourner Group. “The Fourth of July, that’s not my Independence Day. Juneteenth, that’s Independence Day for me and my ancestors.”
When Leslie Henderson contemplated how different Juneteenth feels this year, she was overcome with emotion.
“I do feel Juneteenth 2020 is different than past years,” said Henderson, a Utah native whose parents are both from Mississippi. “This is due in part to the awakening of issues we’re going through because of the color of our skin, the injustices we’ve suffered and continue to suffer until laws, regulations and guidelines are reviewed and corrected.”
She said the changes impact just about every aspect of life — from schools to the criminal justice system to real estate.
“I see, hear and read what’s going, and appreciate those who are standing in support with people of color, who are tired, weary and worn,” Henderson said, noting the work has been going on for decades and it will likely continue on for many years. “But we know we cannot stop until true change has come, when we see it and feel it. But even then, we won’t let our guard down as this will take years to correct.”