BILLINGS — Organizers are inviting all to the Juneteenth celebration in Billings at South Park from on Saturday, with plans for social distancing and speakers remembering the history behind the holiday honoring the end of slavery in the United States.
“We invite those who don’t know. You are more than welcome to come and understand Juneteenth," said Pastor Tracy J. Starr, a member of the Black Heritage Foundation of Yellowstone County, on Wednesday.
Juneteenth celebrates June 19, 1865, the date Union General Gordon Granger brought news to Galveston, Texas, that the Civil War was over and Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had freed all slaves in the southern states.
The treaty signing at the Appomattox Courthouse between U.S. and Confederate leaders took place April 9, 1865, ending the war. It took two months before the news reached the West that slaves in the southern states were free.
It would take until Dec. 6, 1865 that the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, freeing slaves across the country.
The Juneteenth holiday was officially recognized by Montana in 2017 with the passage of a bill introduced by state Sen. Margie MacDonald (D-Billings).
Juneteenth has been celebrated in Billings for just over a decade, according to MacDonald's estimate.
“It’s interesting as a holiday because it kind of bubbled up from the community as opposed to coming from on high or Washington, D.C. Really, for 150 years, it’s been celebrated in some states. Especially in the South, it is huge. But we in Montana, we’re not so aware of it. We’re learning," MacDonald told MTN News.
The Black Heritage Foundation of Yellowstone County will put on the celebration.
Starr works with the foundation and serves as a pastor at All Nations Christian Fellowship Church. Starr has lived in Billings for 14 years, raising six children in the city with his wife Heather. We sat down with Starr to gain some perspective on why Juneteenth is important to black Americans.
“Racism is a lot deeper than the world knows -- than the world wants to admit. But it’s ironic that blacks are the prime target of that racism. Juneteenth gives us hope. Juneteenth gives us something to embrace," Strarr said. "Even though Black History Month, which is February, the shortest month of the year. I'm not black just in February. I’m black all year round. So I celebrate black history every day, for me."
The Juneteenth celebration in Billings usually includes a large potluck barbecue. Starr said things are going to be different this year to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“We’re taking a different approach. We’re going to have bagged lunches. We’re going to ask the public to be mindful of the social distancing. Masks are required. We are asking everybody in the community to wear a mask. If you don’t have a mask, use a handkerchief, bandanna, scarf, whatever you can find, but wear something," Starr said.
The state recognizing the holiday meant a lot to Starr. He said it is good for the black community to know they can place trust in some leaders to take action.
"That means more than words could honestly say. To know now that Montana is one of those states that has acknowledged Juneteenth is just as wonderful as what Abraham Lincoln did in 1863," Starr said.
Starr credited Ruth Curtis, a woman who's lived in Billings since 1992, for helping to start the Juneteenth celebrations originally.
"Ruth Curtis, she played a dynamic role in setting the tone. She might be 5’ 5”, but her get up and go was always priceless to see. Even to this day, in her vulnerable state, she still makes it a point to get involved in a lot of the things that are going on in this community," Starr said.
He mentioned other members of the local black community, Eunace Terry and Pastor Melvin Terry, the Pinky Scott family, Foster family, Forest family and the Holiday family for their work in creating many black history programs in Billings.
Starr said it is important for people not to forget about the history of slavery in America when he feels like there are some who are trying not to "dredge up the past."
“To talk about those things is to dredge up the past. Well, if I don’t talk about my past, how do I embrace my now? How do I embrace who I am as a black man if I’m told to let my history go? Juneteenth has allowed me to embrace that. It has allowed me to identify. I may not be able to identify with the pain and the suffering that my ancestors did, but I have my own pains and my own sufferings from my years of life," Starr said.
Starr said he would prefer to be referred to as a black American, not as an African-American, due to the fact that he was born in the United States. He reserves the term African-American for people who were brought from Africa to be slaves in America.
"I say Black Americans because of the simple fact that you want to put us in a category and call us African-American, but I was born in America. My birth certificate says United States. I didn’t get my Social Security number from Africa. I got it from the United States. So, I don’t consider myself an African-American. I consider myself a Black American," Starr said.
America continues to confront the death of George Floyd since he was killed while in the custody of Minneapolis, Minnesota, police on May 25. As conversations about race, diversity and racism continue in the country, Starr said people should be willing to listen and learn.
“Until we get to the point where we’re willing to share our history and everybody on the receiving end is ready to listen to everybody’s history and accept the fact that these things happened. We can not ignore that they happened. It’s about what can we do so these things don’t continue to happen," Starr said.
“I live by a reachable person is a teachable person. I don’t care how old you are, if you are reachable, you’re teachable. Just because you’re capable it doesn’t make you available. It’s when you’re available that makes you capable to teach those who need to understand," Starr said.
Approaching one another with respect even if you disagree is important to a fruitful conversation, Starr said. People can disagree without having to be disrespectful, Starr said.
"I may not like your views, but I have to respect your views because that’s your view. You are entitled to that and I have to give you that whether I agree with that or not. I don’t have to be rude and disrespectful to you just because I don’t agree with you. And until the world gets to that point, we’re going to continue to battle," Starr said.