In past years J.J. Rector saw Juneteenth as a celebration, a symbol that black people had largely moved past the “stain” of racism and slavery. 

But this year, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks at the hands of police have turned the holiday into a time of reflection, Rector said during Friday’s Freedom March that took dozens of demonstrators from Pittman-Sullivan Park on the near East Side to Martin Luther King Junior Park just over three miles away. 

“For us it’s a reminder that every generation has to fight for their freedom, Rector said. “That freedom is never really won.”

In past years, Juneteenth celebrations in San Antonio were a two-day affair known as the Texas Freedom Festival, which commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers informed slaves in Galveston they were finally free, two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

But this year, concerns over spreading the coronavirus prompted organizers to scale down the celebration to a march and caravan through the East Side, where speakers informed participants where they could go and what they could do to continue to advocate for the rights of black people in San Antonio. 

Dozens of people marched through the streets holding signs bearing messages such as “Why is justice and accountability so controversial to you?” and “Black lives matter period,” as organizers led them in a call-and-response chant of, “Say it loud! I’m black and I’m proud!” as the James Brown song blasted out of speakers. 

As demonstrators continued through the streets, the march grew as people stepped out of homes and businesses to join in the procession. 

“We want to celebrate this day, but we want people to remember that we have a lot to do,” said Katelyn Menard, an organizer with the activist group Reliable Revolutionaries. “We need to keep fighting on behalf of Charles ‘Chop’ Roundtree, and other black men and women who are suffering and dying at the hands of police right here in San Antonio.”

Roundtree was 18 years old when San Antonio Police Department Officer Steve Casanova shot and killed him in 2018 at a Westside home. Roundtree was unarmed, and a grand jury declined to indict Casanova on charges related to the death.

Part of what the black community can do is lift one another up, Menard said. “We have been systematically oppressed, and we have to find ways to support each other,” whether it be smiling at one another on the streets or saying hello. 

Kathrine Johnson spreads open a cape that has been fitted with 140 photographs of black men and women, including some who have been slain. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Building community among San Antonio residents was the hopeful outcome of the march, said Tabitha Carter, who walked at the front of the crowd starting at 11 a.m., as it made its way toward Freedom Bridge.  

“God planted this on my heart to go out and get the community involved,” Carter said. “We cannot stop showing up.”

The event included speeches from members of the community and Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2), whose district includes the East Side and who told the crowd that there has “to be more unity in the community in order to bring about change.”

“Unity shows people that this is a force to be reckoned with, because we are here, we are free, and you will hear us,” Andrews-Sullivan said. “I stand for you, with you, and if there is anything I can do for our community come talk to me, because I have no problem pushing” for what the community needs.

Andrews-Sullivan said she hopes the Freedom March will continue to grow and one day be the size of San Antonio’s MLK March, which draws hundreds of thousands of participants each year.

“I want this march to be an annual thing, and I want it to continue to grow. This should be just as big as the Martin Luther King Day March.”

But for Menard, she wants the belief that black lives matter to continue to grow to be a belief for everyone in the community, “because white lives have always mattered.”

“We knew our lives matter, and we need the entire community to see that,” she said.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.