Gathered in a large crescent circle around a plaque commemorating Centralia’s Black founding father, community members and city councilors held the city’s first formal event celebrating Juneteenth on Saturday at George Washington Park.
The event came just days after President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, which recognizes June 19 — the day in 1865 when some of the last Black slaves were recognized as free under the Emancipation Proclamation — as a national holiday.
The holiday has received widespread recognition in recent years, but most consequently following the historic civil rights demonstrations against police brutality in 2020. Washington state this year joined a number of other states in recognizing Juneteenth as an official holiday.
Centralia’s inaugural event was hosted in collaboration between civic group Multi-Culturally Minded Lewis County and Centralia City Councilor Mark Westley. It featured poems, music and history about the holiday as well as the city’s founders, pioneers George and Mary Jane Washington.
Westley said it dumbfounded him how the city, one of the largest in the nation to have a Black founder, could have gone so long without formally celebrating the holiday and connecting those stories of achievement with those of Washington.
It seemed like a perfect match and Multi-Culturally Minded, which hosted its own informal celebration last year during the protests, agreed.
“It’s heartwarming to see that people took the time to come out to this and say ‘hey, this is something I care about,’” said Rebecca Green, founding member of Multi-Culturally Minded.
She said the turnout was great and it was one of the largest events they’ve seen since the start of the pandemic.
“I just connected all the dots and thought it’s a no-brainer — we have to do this for our community,” Westley said, recounting their work on the holiday event.
Ibrahim Dembele, a student worker at Centralia College and a human rights advocate, succinctly summed up the purpose of the holiday as he spoke of its history. The holiday, he said, celebrates the last place “the shining promise of emancipation” touched while acknowledging the deep turmoil and genocide brought about by slavery.
“Please keep in mind, June 19, 1865, was not a day all Black people were free and everything was fine. Please understand the mental, emotional and physical trauma that Black people have experienced and the generational trauma that impacts people to this day,” he said.
Forced labor and modern-day slavery, though often believed to be a bygone problem, still persists to this day and is a prominent challenge around the globe, Dembele said, with many millions of people still under oppression.
Local historian Heather Beaird described to the crowd Washington’s strife as an ambitious Black man in America, marked with toil and descimination by way of the grueling hand of the law.
Despite the racist system working against him, he fostered a love of his country and for his community located along the confluence of the Chehalis and Skookumchuck rivers.
“George always sold his lots at a fair price. He said, ‘I want to do right by my fellow men, and, if I do, I will never lose anything by it.’ Until his death, he demonstrated this belief again and again … He helped those in need and did it with a free heart,” she said.
His warm nature and kindness was well-known in his community.
“Local children called him Uncle George. George called everyone his townspeople,” Beaird said. “Deeply religious, he treated everyone — even those who disliked him — with respect. He believed men should be judged on their individual merits, not the color of their skin … To this day, Centralia is one of the largest communities in the country to be founded by a Black couple. George Washington succeeded through force of will, intelligence and righteousness.”
Centralia’s first formal Juneteenth celebration was also marked with songs and words written by Black artists.
Sarah Brown, Washington state area coordinator with nonprofit Amnesty International, performed Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” poem. Michael Green, a music teacher at Northwest Christian Academy, performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and concluded the event with a rendition of “Like a Mighty Stream,” joined by attendees.
“I think it’s very positive,” said Michael Green, who is married to Rebecca Green. “I think, even though it’s a long time coming, I’m not bothered by it sparking now (due to) the civil rights movement.”
Green said he sees parallels between both independence days, Juneteenth and the Fourth of July.
“They’re both just very American,” he said.
Westley said he hopes there’s an organization or group that can take control of the annual Juneteenth holiday event in Centralia and continue their work to connect the past with the present.
“It is an opportunity to guide our community to greater levels of equity and inclusion,” he said.