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Juneteenth is primed for Utahns of color to explore their family history and traditions

An LGBTQ+ Progress Pride Flag and a Juneteenth Flag hang outside of a Salt Lake City home, June 12, 2023.
Curtis Booker
An LGBTQ+ Progress Pride Flag and a Juneteenth Flag hang outside of a Salt Lake City home, June 12, 2023.

Juneteenth may have just become a state-recognized holiday in Utah last year, but the commemorations have been happening long before then.

The day honors the end of slavery across the United States after the Civil War. On June 19, 1865, African Americans in Galveston, Texas were finally told of the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s a period of time that can breed a mixed bag of emotions.

Robert Burch, the executive director of the Sema Hadithi African American Heritage and Culture Foundation, said “we spend a lot of our time being torn apart by falsehoods, half-truths and things of that nature.”

“I think we can really become closer as a community, I mean red, yellow, black, white and brown, if we really just learn the truth about each other, tell the truth about each other, and be respectful of one another's story," he said.

At its core, the holiday recognizes the challenges past generations faced to obtain freedom. For generations, Black Americans have marked that with parades, festivals, performances and cookouts. Nationally, now, there is a movement to use the holiday as an opportunity for activism and education, with community service projects aimed at addressing racial disparities and educational panels on topics such health care inequities and the need for parks and green spaces.

For Thom Reed, program manager at Family Search International, Juneteenth is an “opportunity to celebrate the freedom, the equality of all mankind.” It’s also a good time for those who want to know more about their ancestry to learn it and share it with their families.

"I've seen more and more people, Black people specifically, become more engaged in family history,” he said. “I think it is a hunger marrow-deep. I think it is a yearning to connect and to know who we belong to, who we came from."

It's unclear if the increased interest has any connection to events such as the 2020 murder of George Floyd by police in Minnesota or the Black Lives Matter movement. Even though we live in a world of technology and the growth of social media, Reed still thinks we’re disconnected.

"People still feel alone,” he said. “And I think as that has increased, social media has increased and people being online and trying to communicate with each other, that hunger has just grown."

Discovering what happened in one's family history can be a difficult pill to swallow initially, Burch said. But ultimately a rewarding feeling.

“It hurts Black families who don't know the truth of their heritage, and it hurts white families who don't know the truth of our heritage, because of both sides being in ignorance and there's some joy in understanding success.”

Now that more states recognize Juneteenth and the federal government itself came around with a bill signed by President Joe Biden in 2021, there’s a desire to observe more than just a day off.

"I think we're taking Juneteenth and that celebration one step further to say, ‘Hey, well, we want to take this time to connect with your family, to understand more of your history, to go back past 1865, if you can,’" Reed said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Curtis Booker is KUER’s growth, wealth and poverty reporter in Central Utah.
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