Juneteenth holds new meaning for Buffalo, New York, following shooting tragedy

(NEW YORK) — Buffalo, New York, has one of the country’s largest Juneteenth celebrations outside of Texas, according to event organizers.

Each year on June 19, the community comes together to honor the day that enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned they were free, about 2 1/2 years after they were legally freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.

However, this year, the celebration of freedom in the U.S. means much more to this city.

Buffalo is grieving following a mass shooting by an alleged white supremacist at a Tops supermarket that left 10 Black people dead and another three people wounded on May 14.

Authorities have called the attack a racially motivated hate crime.

The alleged shooter ranted in a 180-page document detailing the racist motivations behind the mass shooting, saying that he targeted the area because of its predominantly Black population.

Jomo Akono, who helps organize the Juneteenth celebration, said the suspect drove past his house to get to the supermarket that day. In this tight-knit community, everyone felt the weight of the attack.

“Many of the people in our community have direct or one or two degrees of separation from someone who was injured or killed or inside of the facility — someone who survived being shot at,” said Akono. “They have the mental and emotional scars.”

This year, Buffalo residents are taking this moment of grief and heartache and using Juneteenth as a way to remind the world that racial injustice is not over in this country.

The weekend-long festival is being dedicated to all of the victims affected by the tragedy and their families, and there will be a place of silence near the festival for people to relax, reflect on the tragedy and honor the victims, organizers said.

The event organizers say there is a long way to go in the fight for racial justice — and Juneteenth is a chance to celebrate both how far the country has come and acknowledge how far it has to go.

“This will be a defining event that really displays our rich culture and history and shows that we are really a part of this American landscape in every which way imaginable,” said Jennifer Earle-Jones, president of Juneteenth Festival, Inc.’s board of directors.

The 47th Juneteenth Festival of Buffalo will aim to educate attendees about the past histories of the Black community in America — from slavery, to Jim Crow, to modern-day oppression via police brutality and systemic racism, according to organizers.

The recent mass shooting highlighted the growing threat of white supremacist violence in the U.S.

“Put May 14 as one of those traumatic forces against Black people here in America,” said Akono. “I feel optimistic that people are going to wake up and be more vigilant.”

He continued, “If everything was okay, why are we still fighting for voting rights? Why are we still talking about equal and respectful police protection?”

Though there will be plenty of discussion about ways to address racial injustice, organizers say they also want residents to revel in the love and joy of the community after years and months of facing such burdens.

“We want to be that communal place, where the village comes together again after the wolf is gone,” she added.

Event organizers say healing — not just in Buffalo, but the Black community as a whole — is a vital part of achieving racial justice. Residents need a break, they say, and the multigenerational love and community of the festival will satisfy that need.

Several generations of Buffalo residents will come together for a dayslong schedule of events including parades, parties, festivals and performances by local students, fraternities and sororities prepared just for this day.

“People have been crying for months and months,” Earle-Jones said. They want “people to come out and be able to laugh.”

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