BREWER, Maine — Music played a big role in the annual Juneteenth celebration, held Friday at the Joshua Chamberlain Freedom Park to celebrate the official end of slavery in America.
Bangor resident Mary Hunter led the dozen attendees at the gathering in “God Bless America,” then she sang “Amazing Grace” and “Go Down, Moses,” which contains the timeless words “Let my people go.”
Before the event began, she said she picked the “Go Down, Moses” song because “it’s appropriate for the occasion.”
While most people are under the impression that President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which was signed on Jan. 1, 1863, marked the end of slavery, the truth is it freed slaves only in areas of rebellion, but allowed slavery to continue in other states, including Texas.
Slavery was finally abolished when the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was enacted on Dec. 6, 1865, nearly three years later.
June 19, 1865, the day Union soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas, with news that the South had surrendered two months earlier ending the war, and that the slaves in that area were free, is the real end of slavery, event organizer James Varner said during Friday’s event.
“It took 2½ years” for slaves in rebel states such as Texas to be freed, he said. “For 2½ years it was business as usual. Their masters didn’t tell them.”
Juneteenth is celebrated annually on June 19, although it was marked this year on June 18 in Brewer.
The holiday, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, is a holiday recognized by 31 states and the District of Columbia. It has been celebrated in Brewer for the past five years.
Brewer Mayor Arthur “Archie” Verow welcomed the dozen attendees and presented Varner with a copy of the city’s Juneteenth Proclamation.
The Rev. Becky Gunn of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor delivered the invocation.
Many in the small group participate every year. One newcomer was Daris Lee, who recently moved to Maine from Missouri, and said Friday’s event was his first Juneteenth celebration.
“It doesn’t matter the color of our skin,” Varner said. “We need to look at each other as human beings.”
Progress has been made over the last 145 years, but still “there is work to be done in this area,” he said.
Varner, who founded the Maine Human Rights Coalition Inc. three years ago, said in the 50 years he has lived in Maine, “I’ve had to run for my life two times because of the color of my skin.”
“Our primary goal is to work to undo racism,” he said of the coalition.
Several local businesses were commended by the coalition for their continued efforts to undo racism and discrimination, including Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, Penquis, WVII-TV Channel 7, the University of Maine Alumni Association, the UU church and the city of Brewer.
Varner called on attendees to spread the word of peace and acceptance of those with different religions, cultures, beliefs and skin color.
“Be the choir,” he said. “We have to do it, and we can do it.”
The ceremony ended with Varner singing a song he wrote, then a wreath was placed at the nearby Underground Railroad statue.