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Juneteenth is getting renewed attention this year. Here’s what’s behind it

It is a 155-year-old day of celebration that many non-Black people in the U.S. and around the world only started to hear of recently.

But this year, Juneteenth has been brought to the forefront, due in large part to the recent killings of Black Americans, the ensuing anti-racism protests and a Trump campaign rally initially planned for the same date. 

What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of African Americans from slavery. On June 19, 1865, Union Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform slaves they had been freed. 

He was actually a bit late. The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued by President Abraham Lincoln more than two years earlier, on Jan. 1, 1863. By June 19, 1865, Lincoln had been assassinated, and the 13th amendment that would abolish slavery in the United States would be ratified six months later. 

An engraving by Alexander Hay Ritchie depicting the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the cabinet of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, based on a painting by Francis Bicknell Carpenter, circa 1866. (Alexander Hay Ritchie/Francis Bicknell Carpenter/Library of Congress via Reuters)

There are various theories about why it took so long for the news to reach Texas. It was, in fact, the last state in the Confederacy to get word. 

There have been stories that a messenger was murdered on his way to Texas with the news and that slave owners kept the news to themselves so that they could keep their labour force intact.

Some historians believe it is more likely that due to a lack of Union soldiers there during the war, Texas largely remained a Confederate state until 1865 when Robert E. Lee finally surrendered.  

So it was news to the 250,000 or so slaves in the state on June 19, when Granger — sent to command the Department of Texas — carried out one of his first duties in announcing General Order No. 3: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” 

Sgt. Major Joseph H. Lee stands with members of the 3rd Regiment United States Colored Troops re-enactors during the Juneteenth Day Parade and Festival in Philadelphia in June 2018. (Yong Kim/The Philadelphia Inquirer via The Associated Press)

According to the U.S. Library of Congress, “Spontaneous celebrations broke out as the news spread, and these gave rise to annual events to mark the day.”

The name Juneteenth  is a combination of June and 19th. It has also been called Juneteenth Independence Day, Freedom Day and Emancipation Day.

How is it celebrated? 

Juneteenth celebrations were first held in Texas in 1866. Over the next several years, as participation grew, African Americans needed larger spaces to hold their celebrations. In 1872, a group of Black ministers and supporters raised $ 1,000 to buy a tract of land in Houston, which would become Emancipation Park

As former slaves moved to other states, they brought the Juneteenth tradition of celebration with them. About six million African Americans from the rural South moved to cities in the North, Midwest and West from about 1916 to 1970. 

The Atlantic City Carnival dance group enjoys the celebration at the Juneteenth MusicFest and Parade in Philadelphia in June 2018. (Yong Kim/The Philadelphia Inquirer via The Associated Press)

Celebrations of the day ebbed and flowed over the years. Some people took the stance that it was too much of a look backward on a painful past rather than a focus on the future. 

But it was given prominence again in 1968, a few months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. On June 19 of that year, his Poor People’s Campaign held a Juneteenth Solidarity Day. It attracted between 50,000 and 100,000 people and featured speakers including King’s friend and activist Ralph Abernathy, and his widow Coretta Scott King. 

Today it is celebrated in American cities big and small, some with parades, Miss Juneteenth beauty pageants and public parties, many with backyard barbecues.

Crowning a queen of Juneteenth is often part of the celebrations. Here, Desiree Hicks, 18, who held the honour of Miss Juneteenth in 2011 in Austin, Texas, rides in the parade with Miss Lil Juneteenth Deaqujwyanta Sorrells, 11, and Aubri Brent, 12, Deawntanique Sorrells, 5, and Jada Pickens, 9. (Rodolfo Gonzalez/Austin American-Statesman/The Associated Press)

Is Juneteenth a legal holiday?

Juneteenth is not a federal holiday. But 47 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation recognizing it as a holiday or observance. The only states that have not are Hawaii, North Dakota and South Dakota. 

Texas was the first to declare Juneteenth a statewide official holiday in 1980. 

This week, New York’s governor signed an executive order recognizing Juneteenth as a paid holiday for state employees to commemorate the emancipation of slaves in the U.S. 

Juneteenth experienced a revival in 1968 during the civil rights era. A few months after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, his wife, Coretta Scott King, addressed a crowd of almost 50,000 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. during a Juneteenth Solidarity Day rally. She told those gathered that racism, poverty, and war had combined to make matters worse for poor black and white alike. (Bettmann Archive)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he will also propose legislation next year making June 19 a permanent state holiday. 

“It is a day we should all reflect upon. It is a day that is especially relevant in this moment in history,” Cuomo said.

Virginia’s governor has also proposed making Juneteenth a state holiday. And in recent years, celebrations have spread to other countries, including Canada. 

The Juneteenth flag, seen here in Omaha, Neb., was designed in 1997. The design is meant to represent a new star, or new dawn, on the horizon, with a nod to the state flag of Texas and the U.S. flag. (Nati Harnik/The Associated Press)

Why did it become such a flashpoint this year?

Earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump announced he would hold his first political rally in months in Tulsa, Okla., on June 19. 

Tulsa is the site of one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history: the 1921 race massacre. Mobs of white people attacked African Americans and their businesses, killing as many as 300 people. 

A group of people looking at smoke in the distance coming from damaged properties following the Tulsa Race Massacre, Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921. (Photo by Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images) (Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images)

Trump told Fox News that the June 19th date for his rally wasn’t intentional, saying, “It’s going to be really a celebration and it’s an interesting date. It wasn’t done for that reason, but it’s an interesting date.”

However, following days of criticism and calls for him to change it, Trump’s campaign moved the rally to the following night. 

Jamal Toure dressed as an African spirit at a Juneteenth celebration in 2016 in Savannah, Ga. Georgia recognized Juneteenth as a holiday in 2011. Today, 47 states officially mark the day. (Josh Galemore/Savannah Morning News/The Associated Press)

Major companies marking Juneteenth

Last year, Google made headlines for not marking the holiday with its customary Google doodle when Davian Chester, a digital artist in Georgia, called out the tech giant and offered up his own version.

But this year, amid heightened tensions following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, and the huge anti-racism protests across the U.S. and around the world, many major companies and organizations have decided to recognize Juneteenth. 

Nike, Twitter, Square, Lyft and the NFL are among those giving their U.S. employees a paid day off. 

Nike CEO John Donahoe wrote in a memo to employees that observing Juneteenth represents an “important opportunity to better commemorate and celebrate Black history and culture.”

A Google Trends report on the search term ‘Juneteenth’ from January 2016 to June 14 of this year shows rising interest in the holiday over the past three years especially. (Google)

Pop culture references

In 2016, Donald Glover’s series Atlanta produced an episode called Juneteenth, in which the main characters go to an upscale party — a very different celebration from those their ancestors might have attended.

The sitcom Black-ish did a Juneteenth episode, too, in 2017, which was a bit more of a history lesson — though with a good dose of parody mixed in. Musical group The Roots re-enacted the end of slavery in an animated bit as part of the show. 

The film Miss Juneteenth is set to be released this Friday. It tells the story of a former beauty queen who prepares her daughter to compete in the annual Miss Juneteenth pageant. 

And in 1999, American novelist Ralph Ellison’s second novel, Juneteenth, was published posthumously. Penguin Random House describes it as “a brilliant exploration of the American soul in all its heroic idealism, its moral ambivalence, and its still-troubled sense of racial identity.”

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With renewed focus on health, De Grasse sees track worlds as chance to rejoin elite

Andre De Grasse became a household name in 2016, sprinting his way to three Olympic medals after signing a multi-year deal worth $ 11.25 million US with Puma the previous year. By 2017, the 21-year-old was caught up in the fame of being Canada’s latest sporting hero.

He was going out a lot, not getting much sleep and then his eating habits began to change, with stops at the local drive-thru becoming more frequent when he was travelling for competitions.

With De Grasse in less than top shape, injuries followed, including a strained right hamstring during a training run just days before the start of the 2017 track and field world championships in London. His 2018 season ended in July when he re-injured the hamstring at the Canadian championships.

“I had to change,” De Grasse recalls, as he prepares to run the 100 and 200 metres as well as the 4×100 men’s relay at the upcoming world championships in Doha, Qatar. “I probably took a lot for granted but this was my job now. I couldn’t be slacking and I definitely didn’t want to keep getting injured. I had to play a better role [in my health].”

The injuries played a part in splitting from Canadian coach Stu McMillan of the Phoenix-based ALTIS training group last fall and moving to Jacksonville, Fla., to work with American sprint guru Rana Reider, who has helped De Grasse regain confidence and lower his times to near-personal-best levels.

WATCH | De Grasse’s comeback from hamstring injuries:

Follow three-time Olympic medallist Andre De Grasse’s road to recovery, after tearing his hamstring days before the 2017 World Championships. 5:34

Nowadays, De Grasse either prepares his own meals or his girlfriend Nia Ali and his mother, when she pays a visit, will cook for him.

11 individual podium finishes in 2019

“I take a lot more things seriously now,” he says, citing his improved sleep habits, nutrition, recovery from races, staying hydrated and regular physiotherapy treatments. “I’m not eating out as much or snacking on junk food.

“I had to sacrifice some things and not be out late so I was ready for the next training day.”

De Grasse returned to the track for his first 100 race of 2019 on May 21 and ran 10.09 seconds to finish second at the Nanjing World Challenge in China. He has remained healthy and reached the podium in five of his seven races in the 100 and all six times running the 200, with his season bests of 9.97 and 19.87, respectively, close to his personal bests (9.91/19.80) accomplished at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

WATCH | Andre De Grasse sets 9.97-second season-best:

Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse clocks a season-best time of 9.97 seconds to finish 1st. 1:02
De Grasse believes he can establish new personal bests in Doha, where he will try to carry the momentum from a “consistent” 9.97 performance on Sept. 1 at the Berlin World Challenge.

“All my starts this season have been shaky and I haven’t been able to get out with the field,” De Grasse says, “but I was able to get out of the [starting] blocks well and maintain my speed.

He has been quite consistent lately coming out of the blocks. … I like his confidence and where he’s at.— CBC Sports track analyst Donovan Bailey on sprinter Andre De Grasse

“I just have to stay patient and when I hear the [starter’s] gun just react and push. If I do that, I’ll be in the mix [for a medal].”

Donovan Bailey, who won the men’s 100 final at the 1996 Olympics in world-record time, believes De Grasse has the potential to reach the podium “and even win” in Doha.

“He knows how to put himself in position to make the final and leave it all out on the track,” says the CBC Sports track analyst. “He has been quite consistent lately coming out of the blocks, transitions well and relaxes [in the final metres] of the race. I like his confidence and where he’s at.”

American Christian Coleman, having posted a 9.81 world-leading time this season on June 30 at the Prefontaine Classic, is the favourite in Doha. But he hasn’t run the 100 since his victory at the U.S. championships on July 26 and recently faced a possible sanction for three “whereabouts failures” over a 12-month period before the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency dropped his case for missed doping tests on a technicality.

WATCH | Canadian moments to remember from track & field worlds:

From Donovan Bailey, to Perdita Felicien, to Andre De Grasse, Canada has had flashes of glory at the track and field world championships. 3:03
“We’ll see how he handles the pressure,” Bailey says, “especially after the recent bad publicity. We’ll see how strong psychologically he is. If he knows he wasn’t guilty, he can forget about what happened.”

Reigning world champion and fellow American Justin Gatlin has the fourth fastest time this year at 9.87 but he pulled up with a suspected left hamstring or thigh injury on Sept. 3 at the Zagreb World Challenge in Croatia and might not be at full health in Qatar.

Two-time reigning Canadian champion Aaron Brown, who clocked 9.96 in the semifinals at the national championships in July, is also in the field that features 2011 world champion Yohan Blake, Akani Simbine, Zharnel Hughes, Adam Gemili and 2019 NCAA gold medallist Divine Oduduru as medal contenders.

WATCH | Aaron Brown defends Canadian 100m title, beating De Grasse:

Aaron Brown edged Andre De Grasse in a photo finish to capture his second consecutive 100-metre title at the Canadian track and field championships. 0:21
“I think Aaron needs to run as relaxed as he did in the semifinals at nationals,” says Bailey. “I find sometimes in the Diamond League he’s quite stiff and just needs to get out of the blocks and run the track like he owns it.

“He probably could have run 9.90 or faster at Canadian championships, but I don’t want him putting too much pressure on himself or getting too nervous that he can’t achieve that.”

De Grasse, who clocked 19.87 in his most recent 200 to place third at the Diamond League Final in Brussels, spent much of his training working on his start.

“My speed is there so I have to make sure I’m holding my form and accelerating properly,” he says. “I think I relaxed too much on the bend [in Brussels] and let [Noah] Lyles and [Ramil] Guliyev get away from me and I had to come back at the end.

“I have to try not to fall asleep at that point in the race, hit the gas and hold my form coming into the straightaway.”

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El Paso shooting sparks renewed calls to make ‘domestic terrorism’ a crime in U.S.

When John Bash, the U.S. Attorney for El Paso, declared that the shooting that killed 22 people was being investigated as “domestic terrorism,” he said firmly: “We’re going to do what we do with terrorists in this country, which is to deliver swift and certain justice.” 

But that justice won’t actually come from prosecuting the alleged shooter, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius, as a terrorist because while the term “domestic terrorism” is defined in U.S. law, there is no criminal penalty attached. Prosecutors will instead use an array of federal and state gun, murder and hate crime laws.

That gap in federal law has been the subject of intense debate about how American law enforcement treats homegrown attacks as compared to overseas actions, and if the two should be considered equal.

Proponents of attaching a federal penalty to domestic actions say it would give law enforcement a clear mandate to act and prevent these types of crimes. Opponents say federal agencies already have the tools they need, and a crackdown could lead to the same types of civil liberties violations associated with the war on international terrorism.

“It matters to call something what it is. I think there’s a moral equivalence that we all need to ensure we treat incidents of terrorism with, whether they’re inspired by jihadist ideology or neo-Nazi ideology or whatever it might be,” said Joshua Geltzer, who served as senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council.

Having a federal domestic terrorism charge, Geltzer says, would give Federal Bureau of Investigation agents a clear goal and allow them to put more resources into prevention.

Dr. Julio Novoa, left, and Danielle Novoa visit a makeshift memorial with their 10-month-old son Richard Novoa at the scene of the shooting in El Paso. (John Locher/The Associated Press)

U.S. law defines domestic terrorism as dangerous acts intended to intimidate the population or influence the government by intimidation or coercion.  While states have domestic terrorism statutes, Geltzer says making it a federal crime would send a strong message about the government’s priorities.

“I think when Americans see criminal charges brought by federal prosecutors, it speaks to the significance of what’s being charged and what’s been done,” Geltzer said. 

Watch: Witnesses recall shooting

Witnesses who fled a mall in El Paso during a mass shooting describe their frightening experiences as a gunman opened fire. 0:42

In El Paso, authorities are looking at the shooting as a possible hate crime, and state officials say Crusius will face capital murder charges, putting the death penalty on the table.

Geltzer notes efforts to strengthen terrorism laws after 9/11 were effective in prosecuting foreign attackers, but came at the expense of policing extremists on U.S. soil.

‘White-supremacist violence’

The urgency now, proponents argue, is underscored by the rising nature of the threat of white supremacists. Earlier this year, the U.S. Attorney in Virginia wrote an op-ed detailing the need for a federal domestic terrorism law.  Since 2017, the FBI Agents Association has been lobbying Congress for a change.

A report from the Anti-Defamation League found that from 2009 to 2018 right-wing extremists accounted for 73 per cent of extremist-related deaths, compared to just 23 per cent linked to Islamic extremists. 

“A majority of the domestic terrorism cases we’ve investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call white-supremacist violence,” FBI director Christopher Wray testified before Congress last month.

Mother Aidee Gutierrez, right, originally from Mexico, and daughters Marlene Gutierrez and Brissa Martinez embrace at a makeshift memorial outside the Walmart. Mexico said eight of its citizens were among the dead in El Paso. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

But opponents of a federal domestic terrorism law point out that mass shooters have been punished severely without such a law in place. Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine African-Americans in a church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, was sentenced to death after being convicted of a combination of firearms and civil rights offences.

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions said James Fields, who drove his car through a group of people in Charlottesville, Va., killing Heather Heyer in 2017, was a domestic terrorist. Fields, though was ultimately convicted and sent to prison for life for hate crime charges.

Repeating post-9/11 mistakes

Critics also say giving the FBI more power to fight domestic terrorism risks repeating the mistakes made post-9/11.

Writing on Twitter, Hina Shamsi, with the American Civil Liberties Union, warned against the same approach to international attacks being applied to domestic events, “approaches that led to indefinite detention, mass surveillance, no-fly List, abusive use of informants.”

She said law enforcement can fight homegrown extremism by refocusing priorities and resources and by showing the will to tackle the problem. 

Another challenge in creating a domestic terrorism law is whether it contains a provision to designate groups as domestic terrorist organizations, a key ingredient in foreign terrorist laws. 

The risk, critics warn, is that while white supremacists and far-right extremists are in the spotlight now, other groups could find themselves in the federal crosshairs.

Angel Gonzalez prays next to the memorial. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Karen Greenberg at Fordham University says in a politically charged environment like this, the president could choose to designate groups like Antifa and Black Lives Matter as domestic terrorist groups. 

“It’s the line between speech and action,” said Greenberg, director of Fordham’s Center on National Security. “How broad is support for a terrorist group? How do we define it? I think we have to be very careful about that and do it in a responsible way that understands the excesses that occurred in the name of the war on terror.”

She says the public outcry to label mass shooters as domestic terrorists was as much about optics as process. It came from a need for equality between how homegrown extremists are viewed compared to those abroad.

While she believes the media and politicians treat homegrown extremists as equally dangerous as foreign actors, she says crafting any new law must be done carefully.

“What the FBI needs to be able to do is to look at the American people and say, ‘We can keep you safe,’ but the price can’t be just ignoring of constitutional protections,” Greenberg said.

Geltzer, now a law professor at Georgetown University, agrees that a more nuanced approach is needed, noting a designation for domestic terrorist groups isn’t necessarily needed.

“I don’t think we need to just recreate our foreign terrorist organization regime on the domestic level. But I do think that we need to do something.”

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How measles outbreak spurred renewed interest in national vaccine registry

As Colin Duggan and his wife were getting ready to take their 18-month-old daughter to get vaccinated, they realized they didn’t know their own immunization history.

Over the years, Duggan has moved around, living in Nova Scotia, Ontario and the United States. When it came to finding his vaccination records, he was at a loss.

“We asked our nurse practitioner if that was something we could do again, and she said, ‘Better safe than sorry,'” he said.

That day, the entire family rolled up their sleeves and received their shots for measles, mumps and rubella.

A central database

Creating a central place for people to look up their records is just one part of a long list of reasons why public health advocates have spent more than two decades calling for a national immunization registry.

Those calls have been renewed recently with an outbreak of measles in Saint John.

One of those patients had visited a hospital in Halifax for treatment of something unrelated to measles. Because of that, all cleaners, doctors and nurses had to be tested to see if they were immune before they could return to work.

Colin Duggan and his daughter wait to receive their MMR vaccines. Duggan decided to get the booster at the same time because he couldn’t find his vaccination records. (Submitted by Colin Duggan)

“It’s on everybody’s mind in public health, in all the provinces and territories, and at the federal government,” said Dr. Gaynor Watson-Creed, deputy chief medical officer of health for Nova Scotia.

“I think the big advantage for a national registry is that allows us to see how well we’re doing at reaching unimmunized populations and bringing their immunizations up to date. And that gives us a sense as to how protected we are against some of the most serious vaccine preventable diseases.”

While Watson-Creed said the desire is there, a national registry would force public health officials to sort through some significant hurdles.

Each jurisdiction follows its own system when it comes to vaccines. There are different types of shots, some are given on different schedules. 

“It would require 13 provinces to have the same approach.”

There are, however, hints that it’s possible. Eight provinces and territories have opted to use the same program, Panorama, to digitally track their public health records.

Dr. Gaynor Watson-Creed remains hopeful that a national immunization registry will be created in Canada. She says public health officials across the country are on board. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

Ultimately, it would also require the federal government’s involvement to oversee the program.

“The federal government does not necessarily have a stellar track record when it comes to innovation and national registries,” said Ian Culbert, the executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association.

Even so, he said the CPHA wants to see the development of a registry to be a priority.

“I think we need to proceed cautiously and make sure that we make solid and sound investments moving forward.”

Health Canada points to the work being done under the Pan-Canadian Public Health Network, which helps share information when someone moves to a different province or territory. But the vision of public health advocates goes much further than that. 

Ideally, Culbert said, a registry would offer a database for research purposes without containing identifying information, while individuals could still access their own information that would be safeguarded by health regulations. 

Targeting specific areas

Culbert said there are many situations where people haven’t received their vaccines because of logistics. Maybe they don’t have a family physician or they can’t take time off work to go to an appointment.

Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association, says a national registry could help identify neighbourhoods to set up pop-up vaccination clinics. (EvidenceNetwork.ca)

“If we had a registry, we would be able to pinpoint perhaps neighbourhoods that have lower immunization rates and be able to go in and do a pop-up vaccination clinic at a convenient time for parents or for whoever is the focus of that particular campaign.”

Researchers, too, have also advocated for a national vaccine registry, saying it could be an incredible data source that could shape public health.

Dr. Joan Robinson, a pediatric infectious disease physician at the University of Alberta, said the lack of consistency in recording vaccinations between provinces “is a huge problem.”

But she believes it may take a major outbreak for it to become a top priority.

“It’s asking the federal government to put money into something that isn’t completely their responsibility,” she said.

Robinson is a realist when it comes to the likelihood of the registry ever being created, even though she’d be in full support if it did actually happen.

“We could look at … who gets admitted in hospital with influenza. We could use that information to figure out which of the vaccines worked best.”

She said it would also help individuals manage their own records, ideally through an app.

“You could access your immunization records and the records of your children. And it could tell you when anyone is due for a vaccine. I mean, wouldn’t that be a novel idea?”

Robinson said the priority now needs to be working with parents to make sure children are vaccinated.

Culbert said everything needs to be on the table amid the ongoing vaccine debate.

“Part of the problem is that there are no silver bullets,” said Culbert. “There’s no panaceas. This is one of a number of initiatives that need to be undertaken.”

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