Celebrating Juneteenth

Attendees say more steps are needed for racial equity

At the recent 20th anniversary of the Juneteenth Freedom Festival in Kitsap County, political leaders, organizers and supporters joined in the call for more action in the mission for racial equality at a June 18 rally at Evergreen Rotary Park in Bremerton.

The gathering marked the first time Juneteenth has been recognized as a federal holiday. Washington was also one of 18 states to observe June 19 as a state holiday. That meant a day of paid time off the following Monday for city and state employees, something that Jewel Shepard-Sampson, director of the Kitsap Black Student Union, considered a win.

“It’s about time,” she said. “I think it actually starts to right the wrongs of history and also makes a good stand for those reparations that hopefully are coming.”

The festival began with a “People’s March” from downtown Bremerton to Evergreen Rotary Park. Marchers sang and prayed during the event.

Bremerton Mayor Greg Wheeler, who joined celebrants for the march, said he has attended the festival for 15 years. He said it continues to grow in size as well as diversity, noting the number of both Black and white attendees.

“I see a greater mix of groups, a greater mix of race,” Wheeler said. “It’s always been a celebration, but now it’s more of a celebration of people from all different backgrounds.”

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, 6th District congressman, used the festival to advocate for a number of federal issues that include voting rights, equity in housing and education, and expanded health care. Kilmer, who is running for re-election, also advocated for the Paycheck Fairness Act, a measure that failed to pass in the Senate.

“If we want to continue down this path, we need to make sure that we address pay inequities. It is wrong when an African American woman gets 66 cents on the dollar as a white man,” he said.

The Rev. Susie Beil, a member of the Kitsap County Council for Human Rights, agreed with the congressman. Beil said she continues to see racism practiced this year, especially at school board meetings.

“There’s more awareness,” Beil said. “There’s more collective work going on, but also there’s more division in people camped out in their spaces that are antagonistic to equity in school board meetings this year across the country and especially in Central Kitsap.”

Wheeler agreed that changes are needed in education, saying the “conversation needs to continue happening, and if we do that, we’ll achieve greater equity.”

Kilmer thanked participants, saying that by just attending, they were making a difference.

“I am proud that we have people who show up, who speak up, who do something, and you’re doing that with your presence today,” he said.