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Burlington's First Juneteenth Celebration To Acknowledge Black History, Freedom & Resilience

A screenshot of a red, black and green juneteenth graphic with a list of schedule, map, artists and educational, against a yellow background
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Saturday is Juneteenth. It marks the day in 1865 that enslaved people in Texas received word of their freedom, more than two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The holiday has been a mainstay of the Black community for over a century, but as of Thursday, it is officially a federal holiday. In Vermont, some municipalities are holding their first-ever Juneteenth celebrations.

That's the case in Burlington, where a full day of music performances, educational programs, and other events are scheduled throughout the city.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with the Tyeastia Green, Executive Director of Burlington’s Office of Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, which organized the city’s Juneteenth celebration. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: Tyeastia, this is the first time Burlington has held a city-sponsored Juneteenth celebration. Why did you decide this was an important event for the city to organize?

Tyeastia Green: Well, I decided it was important because it's always been a part of my life. And coming into Burlington and realizing that there was no celebration here to be had surrounding Juneteenth — I told the mayor the first week of working for the city that I would organize a Juneteenth celebration for the city of Burlington. And he said, "Go for it." So, I did just that.

I've never experienced a Juneteenth like this myself. It is my brainchild, but I just wanted the entire community to be able to enjoy it and make it accessible for people to be able to enjoy it, which is why we're in every single neighborhood in Burlington.

What are some of the events that you're especially excited for?

I'm excited for Not my Fourth of July, which is a stage play coming from a theater company in New Jersey. I'm excited for the panel contextualizing Juneteenth, with Xusana Davis, and Tabitha Moore, and Kiah Morris, and Zoraya Hightower and Belan Antensaye.

I'm excited for all of the music. I'm going to try to make it to as many music options as I can. I'm also really excited about the Black healing village where Black people can come and light a candle for their ancestors and be with their community and mourn and also celebrate the resiliency of Black people.

More from Brave Little State: Homegoings: Senayit Tomlinson On Art As A 'Way Through'

Well, just to go back to sort of the roots of bringing this event to Burlington, did the increased focus on racial justice over the past year, since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, did that influence or change the course of how you thought through how to present Juneteenth in the city this year?

No, it didn't. Juneteenth has always been a part of the Black community. So, the murder of George Floyd didn't influence how I would do that. The murder of George Floyd gave me a bigger platform to be able to speak about violence against Black people. And it gave me a platform to be able to speak about racism as a public health emergency. But it didn't, you know, give me that platform to think about Juneteenth in a different way.

We will be talking about the trauma and the trials and tribulations of Black people, and the resiliency of Black people. I am glad that the world got a chance to see the trauma of the Black community with the George Floyd murder, not glad that we had to watch it and not glad that he died, but I'm glad that his platform was so broad that it reached, you know, all across the world.

It lifted the plight of Black people to a height that we have never seen. His murder did that for the Black community. But I have no wool pulled over my eyes to know that he wasn't the first. He definitely wasn't the last, and we really have to start thinking about public safety and what that means for Black people and in a very genuine and real way.

In terms of the inclusion of the various educational programs in the event tomorrow, why did you feel it was important to have an educational aspect to the Juneteenth celebration in Burlington?

One of the things that shocked me the most about coming to Burlington and starting to talk about Juneteenth was how many people who had no idea what Juneteenth was — who had never heard of Juneteenth. And so, because of that, education was at the top of my mind when we were planning this.

We have to make sure people know the history of the country and the history of the last 150-plus years. And if they leave with nothing, at least they will leave with that — understanding what Juneteenth is, and so that was very important to me and my team.

"I think it's really important to start telling the truth about this what happened in this country and start telling the truth about why Black people are at the bottom of every single outcome. We have to start telling the truth about why Black people die so much earlier... And Juneteenth is one of the ways to do that." — Tyeastia Green, Executive Director of Burlington's Office of Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging

For you personally, you've been in this role of racial equity, inclusion and belonging director in Burlington since February 2020. You came here from the Minneapolis area. Do you feel like you've been able to make substantive progress on your office's mission of promoting racial equity in this past 15 months or so that you've been in the job so far?

Absolutely. I see the fruits of my labor on a daily basis. And I see the city changing and shifting in ways that I couldn't even have imagined when I first got here.

We do have a lofty goal, though, and our goal is to ensure that race is not a determining factor in any measurable outcome. And that goal is going to be really hard to reach. It's not an easy task.

But what we want to do at the REIC is to drop seeds to plant trees. Someday, generations from now, people will be able to relax under the shade of those trees because of what we did here today. And so, my goal is just that: is to just drop seeds everywhere, so that we can plant these trees so that generations from now, people can enjoy them.

And is Juneteenth, celebrating Juneteenth in Burlington, one of those seeds?

It is one of those seeds.  I think it's really important to start telling the truth about this what happened in this country and start telling the truth about why Black people are at the bottom of every single outcome. We have to start telling the truth about why Black people die so much earlier. We have to start telling the truth about that. And Juneteenth is one of the ways to do that. And plus, it's one of the ways to acknowledge history, to acknowledge freedom. And so yes, Juneteenth is definitely one of those seeds.

More from VPR News: Slavery Didn't End On Juneteenth. Here's What You Should Know About This Important Day

Disclosure: The City of Burlington's First Annual Juneteenth Celebration is an underwriter of VPR.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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