Historian: Slaves’ freedom celebrated in RI long before first Juneteenth


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The celebration of Juneteenth is widely known to have originated in Galveston, Texas, in 1865 as Union soldiers arrived with news of emancipation for enslaved Americans.

But, according to a local historian, there were similar events held in Rhode Island long before that.

Historian Keith Stokes tells 12 News there are accounts of celebrations commemorating the freedom of slaves on record that happened as early as 1854 in Providence.

Going back even further, with a newspaper clipping dated Aug. 1, 1834, Stokes said the earliest of these celebrations dated back to when slavery was abolished in the British Empire, with what was known as the West India Emancipation.

“This is not Black history or white history. It’s American history,” Stokes said.

Earlier this week, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza signed an executive order making this year’s Juneteenth a paid holiday for city workers.

Then, on Thursday, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Act, making June 19 a federal holiday. It’s the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established in 1983.

“If we use this federal holiday just as a day out of work or a day at the beach, we failed,” Stokes asserted.

“It’s an opportunity for all of us Americans to further celebrate the importance of freedom,” he added.

Gov. Dan McKee told 12 News on Thursday that he would sign off on making Juneteenth a statewide holiday if a bill was first approved by the General Assembly.

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