In 2019 I had the distinct privilege and honor of sharing some history about Juneteenth with Multnomah County employees and special guests. I’d like to share that with you today.
Clara Peoples and Ora Lee Green, out of respect and relationship I call them Mrs. Peoples and Mrs. Green. These two phenomenal women are responsible for starting Portland’s Juneteenth celebration in the park across from Lloyd Center mall in 1972.
Long before I knew anything about Juneteenth, I knew Mrs. Peoples and Mrs. Green. Mrs. Green was my seventh-grade teacher at Beaumont middle school. A little woman who took no mess from nobody and would threaten to talk with your parents in a minute (because nine times out of ten she had a relationship with them) and students did not want their parents coming to the school. Back in the day, Mrs. Green was firm but loving. You knew she wasn’t going to let you get away with foolishness but you also knew she loved and wanted the best for you.
Now, I met Mrs. People’s before becoming Mrs. Green’s pupil. I grew up in the Woodlawn neighborhood. I had to be in the second or third grade. It was summer where we’d be out all day, walking around the area, visiting with friends, playing in the park. I remember the weather was overcast grey, a friend took me to her house to get some food.
Mrs. Peoples lived in this big house on 13th or 14th and Ainsworth. We walked up to the front door and this fair-skinned lady answered. Her look was a bit frightening at first. She waited for us to say hello and tell her what we wanted. My friend told her we were there to get food. She instructed us to meet her at the back door. At the back door was bread, bread, and bread, all types of bread. Mrs. Peoples told us to take what we needed and we did. That was my first encounter with her.
The last time I saw her (actually both of them) was in 2015 at the Juneteenth celebration. Jerry Foster, director of PassinArt, invited me to portray Harriet Tubman in the parade. I saw the two of them and was like a little child taking pictures with their favorite superhero. These were women from my community who helped shape my heart for giving back but it wasn’t until that moment I realized they were responsible for Juneteenth in OR.
Mrs. Peoples was a recent transplant from Muskogee, Okla., where Juneteenth had been celebrated regularly. She noticed there was nothing commemorating the day in Portland. According to a news article, on June 19, 1945, she asked her supervisor if she could tell the workers that June 19 was an important day because it was “Juneteenth.” The supervisor let her make an announcement on the factory’s public address system. Her first words were… “Now hear this, y’all …”
The united states declared independence from Britain on July 4, 1776, and it is a national holiday where the country celebrates being free but all negroes, colored, black people, weren’t free until June 19, 1865. See, there was this thing called the Civil War that happened between 1860-1865. Well, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became official January 1, 1863. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” were, and henceforward forever free but Texas didn’t get that message until Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered in April 1865.
Even after Lee’s surrender, it took Union Major General Gordan Granger another two months to arrive with troops in Galveston, Texas to read the proclamation that all slaves were free because slavery was practiced in Texas up until that day in 1865. That day was June ‘nineteenth’ (Juneteenth) and it is the day Black folks celebrate our collective independence. Now, there are several versions as to why it took so long for slaves to get the news in Texas and Mrs. People’s to get the Spirit of Portland award and these reasons can be argued for eternity but what we do know is when the slaves received the news they were free, there was a lot of rejoicing. I imagine it would have been something like this…
I am free
Praise the Lord, I’m free
No longer bound
No more chains holding me
My soul is resting
It’s just a blessing
Praise the Lord, Hallelujah, I’m free
At its origins, the Juneteenth celebration was a time for reassuring one another, praying together, and for gathering family members. Juneteenth’s focus has always been education and self-improvement. The day is also known as Freedom Day, Black Fourth of July, Jubilee Day, Cel-Liberation Day. Because, as far as Black people are concerned, we’re not free until we’re all free.
In 1980, ten years after Texas declared Juneteenth a holiday of significance, it was recognized across the country and mostly celebrated by Black people. Most states didn’t officially recognize the day as an unofficial holiday until the early two thousand’s. In June 2020, Mayor Ted Wheeler announced Juneteenth would be a paid holiday.
Portland has one of the largest Juneteenth celebrations in the country. Thanks to Mrs. Peoples’ granddaughter and the Juneteenth Oregon committee, her legacy will continue. So, join in on the fun, educate your mind, drink some strawberry soda, enjoy delicious soul food, entertainment, and don’t forget to donate your time, talent, or treasure.