Richmond African American leaders weigh in on Juneteenth

Richmond African American leaders weigh in on Juneteenth
A moment from the 2019 Juneteenth parade and festival at Nicholl Park in Richmond.

By Mike Kinney and Kathy Chouteau

Richmond’s Juneteenth celebration, which had been scheduled for this Saturday, is among the popular summer gatherings in the city forced to postpone due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But with the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping the nation, African American leaders in the city are poised to pause their celebration of the past in order to focus on the injustices that linger.

One hundred and fifty-five years after Union soldiers arrived in Texas to announce the Civil War’s end and the abolishment of slavery – which is the occasion that Juneteenth celebrates – people continue to march for their freedom, said Jerrold Hatchett, president of the Neighborhood Block Association (NBA), which organizes Richmond’s 21-year-old Juneteenth celebration. The event draws thousands of community members to Nicholl Park for a parade and festival.

“The Black Lives Matter movement has truly galvanized us and has inspired people to be a part of the solution and not the problem,” Hatchett said.

Richmond Interim Police Chief Bisa French has supported and attended the peaceful protests that have been taking place across the city. She says it is sad to see people of color still fighting for basic human rights all these years later.

“I will continue to attend peaceful assemblies around Richmond that are a part of the fight, and lend a helping hand wherever possible,” she said, while also committing to protecting Richmond residents “from danger or brutality.”

Hatchett and Chief French are among many African American community leaders inspired by national calls for change. Richmond City Councilmember Nat Bates said the latest resurgence of BLM, sparked by death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody, has successfully put a spotlight on police brutality and issues of racism on both a national and global level.

“Juneteenth signifies our freedom…and we are still not free in 2020,” added Lesa McIntosh, former Richmond councilmember and current East Bay Municipal Utility District board member.

McIntosh hopes that this time, the rallies and marches will truly make a difference. As does Antwon Cloird.

“But now after all of the rallies, marches and protests, who will lead us?” said Cloird, a community advocate and co-founder of Soulful Softball Sunday. “Who will set the agenda for the black and brown communities?”

June 19 is the “real starting date of our new foster land,” said Michael Adams, president of the Chevron Richmond Black Employee Network. That date in history, he said, was also “the beginning of the long hard struggle” to make true words in the Declaration of Independence that “…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

As demonstrators continue to march toward a better future, Richmond leaders haven’t allowed the COVID-19 pandemic to fully quash their annual celebration of the past. NBA organizers are now planning for a “Richmond Juneteenth Freedom and Justice Caravan” on Saturday, June 27. Details on the event are forthcoming, according to Michelle Milam, the City of Richmond Crime Prevention Manager.

“Juneteenth has always been a time to celebrate our culture, our wisdom, our accomplishments, our history, but most importantly, our freedom,” Milam said. “It has been the true Independence Day for many African Americans. This year, I think it takes on more meaning. I think it affords an opportunity to work for change in the future and build the future that Richmond has been working for and deserves.”

Richmond Fire Chief Adrian Sheppard views that as hope for a better tomorrow. He sees Juneteenth as a day of celebration, a time to share stories and culture, but also as a day to remember, mourn and work on solutions. Progress could be the result of recent national events that have shined a light on continued injustices, the fire chief said.

“On the one hand, the racial division seems so stark; yet, on the other hand, so many people are coming together to speak out against inequality,” Sheppard said. “The Black Lives Matter movement brings a voice and a platform for people to peacefully demonstrate their opposition to racism and discrimination.”

Milam emphasized the need for persistence in that goal.

“The fact that it has to even be said that black lives should matter tells us that blackness has been devalued by our nation,” Milam said. “The struggle for justice reform, health access, school equity and opportunity for black people is a marathon, not a sprint, that we all have to run to ensure that America lives up to its promise.”

Children participate in a Black Lives Matter driveway protest in East Richmond Heights on Sunday, June 7, 2020. (Photo credit: Kathy Chouteau)