IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Juneteenth observed across the country with new interest, urgency

The holiday is in the spotlight as the nation faces another racial reckoning.

TULSA, Okla.— Millions of Americans on Friday observed Juneteenth, a holiday to mark the end of slavery in the United States that has taken on a new urgency following the national uproar over the killings of George Floyd and other African Americans by police.

And for many marking the day, it was the first time.

Juneteenth — deliberately downplayed for generations by a U.S. educational system unwilling to focus on that heinous history and uninterested in the accomplishments of Black Americans — is suddenly in the spotlight as the nation faces another racial reckoning.

A rainbow appears behind the Lincoln Memorial as Lisa Fitzpatrick prepares to begin her day with a sunrise walk on June 19, 2020.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Multiple bills have been introduced to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

And because of concerns about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, many events are being held online, like the Juneteenth Music Festival in Denver or the Juneteenth Virtual Community Day in Hartford, Connecticut.

In Florida, where the state broke its record for single-day coronavirus cases with 3,822 new infections Friday, "socially distanced" picnics were planned in Tampa, St. Petersburg and other hard hit locations.

A child takes part in a rally as demonstrators march down Central Park West during events to mark Juneteenth in New York. Andrew Kelly / Reuters

The Rev. Al Sharpton will be the keynote speaker at a Juneteenth rally for justice later in the day in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of a 1921 massacre, which wiped out a vibrant Black business community when a racist white mob killed some 300 African American residents.

Sharpton’s appearance comes a day before President Donald Trump arrives in Tulsa for his first political rally since the pandemic paralyzed the country. The event, which had originally been scheduled for Friday, was moved after the Trump campaign was accused of being tone-deaf and hit with an avalanche of criticism.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump later insisted he made Juneteenth “famous.”

“It’s actually an important event, it’s an important time,” Trump insisted. “But nobody had heard of it. Very few people have heard of it.”

Valerie Saddler, 65, Bobby Eaton, 66 and Vanessa Saddler, 65, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, celebrate Juneteenth.Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News

That was news to 66-year-old Bobby Eaton, who came Friday to the Juneteenth festival in Tulsa and grew up hearing tales of what the Greenwood District was like before the massacre. He spoke while hundreds marched down Greenwood Avenue, on which "Black Lives Matter" was painted in enormous yellow letters.

“I think it’s a good thing that all eyes are on Tulsa right now," Eaton said. "Some of those didn’t know about our history and our culture and what took place down here on Black Wall St. Before Hiroshima, before 9/11, we were bombed right here in 1921.”

Vanessa Saddler, 65, who is also from Tulsa, said "this is sacred, holy ground."

As for Trump, "he is a racist and not welcome," Saddler said.

Meanwhile, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, at an online forum hosted by MSNBC called Juneteenth JusticeCon on Friday night, called on Americans to “dedicate themselves” to “dismantle systemic racism” and paid tribute to the bittersweet nature of Juneteenth — which, he said “both reminds us of the long hard night and the bright morning to come.”

When it comes to racism in the U.S., Biden said “Black Americans carry the burden, but all Americans carry the shame — and the duty to act.”

African Americans have celebrated Juneteenth for more than a century with parades and parties and gatherings of all kinds. And Juneteenth is now recognized by 47 states and the District of Columbia as a state holiday or observance.

"Juneteenth has never been a celebration of victory, or an acceptance of the way things are," Barack Obama, Trump's predecessor and the nation's first Black president, tweeted. "It's a celebration of progress."

Fireworks explode over the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee during an event to mark Juneteenth in Richmond, Va.Mallory Noe-Payne / Reuters

This year, the holiday is being observed more widely than ever before. But in addition to celebrations both large and small, more protests against police violence on African Americans and rallies in solidarity with the community were underway in New York City, Chicago and Atlanta.

Demonstrations were also planned from Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., within sight of the White House, all the way west to the Pacific Coast, where members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union vowed to shut down for eight hours ports from Bellingham, Washington all the way south to San Diego and engage in peaceful protests.

Also in Washington, a memorial to former Redskins owner George Marshall, infamous for his opposition to having Black players on the team roster, suffered the same fate as that of several statues of Confederate generals recently -- it was removed. Workers arrived early Friday and yanked it of its pedestal near RFK Stadium.

At General Motors plants in Michigan, workers and management planned to hold an eight-minute, 46-second moment of silence --- the amount of time authorities initially said that a white Minneapolis police officer kept his knee on George Floyd's neck before he died on May 25.

For workers at major companies like Nike, Target and Twitter, Juneteenth is a paid holiday this year while Capital One announced it was closing its branches early Friday.

Gamboa reported from Tulsa, Siemaszko from New Jersey

Adam Edelman contributed.