Juneteenth is set to become the first new federal holiday since 1983 when Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created, and Santa Monica residents are eager to celebrate the occasion in person this weekend.

The term Juneteenth is a blend of the words June and nineteenth. The holiday has also been called Juneteenth Independence Day or Freedom Day and was often celebrated with church picnics and speeches before the holiday spread across the nation and internationally as Black Texans moved on from the bondage of slavery.

The celebration started with the freed slaves of Galveston, Texas, shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the South in 1863.

Laura Smalley, who was freed from a plantation near Bellville, Texas, remembered in a 1941 interview that her former master had gone to fight in the Civil War and came home without telling his slaves what had happened.

“Old master didn’t tell, you know, they was free,” Smalley said at the time. “I think now they say they worked them, six months after that. Six months. And turn them loose on the 19th of June. That’s why, you know, we celebrate that day.”

Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger and his troops arrived at Galveston on June 19, 1865, with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved men and women of the South were now free. That was more than two months after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia.

Granger delivered General Order No. 3, which said: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”

The next year, the now-free people started celebrating Juneteenth in Galveston, and its observance has continued around the nation and the world since.

The City of Santa Monica has celebrated Juneteenth for nearly three decades. The first was a small celebration held at the Third Street Promenade 28 years ago.

Last year, the pandemic forced the City to hold its festivities online, which it will do again this year. But a few local organizations will unite this weekend to celebrate in person and they invite the community to come join them.

Heritage Celebration

The oldest African-American Baptist church in the city of Santa Monica will kick off its Juneteenth Heritage Celebration at 1502 20th Street in Santa Monica, beginning at 11 a.m. Saturday. Juneteenth Celebration Planning Committee Member Patsy Cobb said the community will be able to enjoy live music, a step show and other participatory performances.

Guest Speakers include Naomi Nightingale, a Santa Monica Historian and Activist, and Laverne Ross, who organized the city’s inaugural Juneteenth event 28 years ago. Food trucks and community vendors and artists will also be on-hand until 3 p.m.

Film Screening

Later in the evening, residents can head over to Historic Belmar Park from 8 – 10 p.m. for “Wade in the Water: A Tiny Film Fest,” an in-person event that will feature an outdoor screening of short films, which seek to celebrate Black culture and its connection to water.

The screening will feature the premiere of “BELONGING,” a Belmar History + Art site-specific dance film honoring African Americans in Santa Monica, and pre-event activities include food trucks and music by DJ Moni Vargas. Participants are also encouraged to explore the historic panels and public sculpture, “A Resurrection in Four Stanzas” along the park’s walking path.

For more information on the upcoming Juneteenth celebrations, visit https://bit.ly/3cRwuIZ.

Brennon@smdp.com